Is Jordan at Risk as Neighbors Syria and Iraq Burn?

The same militant group attacking Iraq wants a Sharia-based Caliphate with pieces of Jordan. Here Jordanian troops deploy near the border. Jordan Pix/Getty

The Middle East is in meltdown. Syria is in civil war, and an Islamist army is at the gates of Baghdad. One Arab nation alone shines as an island of relative stability in this sea of despair: Jordan. But how long can it stay above the fray?

"The country is calm," Jordan's outgoing ambassador at the United Nations, Prince Zeid bin Ra'ad, told me last week. We spoke shortly after fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (aka the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS) had captured a key crossing in Treibel, on the Iraqi side of the border with the Hashemite Kingdom, and as Jordanian troops were urgently dispatched there.

Over the weekend, an ISIS spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, declared the group would drop "Iraq and al-Sham" from its name, which would now simply be the "Islamic State." In a video, a Chilean member of the group declares, in English, an end to existing borders. The group now eyes a Sharia-based Caliphate that beyond Syria and Iraq includes Jordan, Palestine and Israel, Lebanon and parts of Turkey. Whether a force estimated at only 3,000 to 5,000 fighters can achieve such ambitions, however, is a different story.

Unlike in Syria and Iraq, where ISIS has recently scored successes, "there is no enabling environment in Jordan" for the Islamist group to grow, says Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister. The Jordanian army is strong and loyal to the king, and the monarchy is "a unifying force" rather than a source of unrest, Muasher says, adding that ISIS and other Islamists are "a concern but not an existential threat."

For the time being, the assessment in intelligence and diplomatic circles in Washington and the Middle East is that Jordan, indeed, can fend off the militant Islamist onslaught on its neighbors, just as it managed to avoid major turmoil in the past few years when the entire Arab world was shaken by social unrest.

ISIS sees things differently. And Jordan is a key part of its founding. It stems from a jihadist group of foreign fighters, the Islamic State of Iraq, who led the Sunni insurgency against American forces in Iraq. Their leader was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006. Born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Zarqa, Jordan, Zarqawi received his military training in an Al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. Zarqawi is the poster boy for would-be Jordanian jihadists.

Outside of Jordan, the growing prestige of ISIS may breed its own success. Last week, it reportedly signed a cooperation pact with Jabhat al-Nusra, its longtime rival in the popular uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad. If the feud between the two bloody rivals is indeed about to end, their unified force can threaten other governments in the region—including Jordan.

The ancestors of Jordan's King Abdullah II have ruled the country since its establishment as part of the Sykes-Picot agreement that created the modern Middle East in that aftermath of World War I, and they have long maintained warm relations with the West. For decades, Jordan has been considered America's most reliable Arab ally.

For Israel, which signed a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994, relations with the kingdom are even more strategically important: Its longest border is with Jordan, and the kingdom has long served as a geographic buffer between Israel and the chaos at the heart of the Arab world. If Jordan were to turn hostile, the whole of Israel's eastern front would become menacing, which would entirely change the country's strategic defensive stance. Over the weekend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the "international community" to support Jordan, stopping just short of saying Israel would intervene militarily.

Whether the U.S. or Israel will intervene militarily to rescue the kingdom is unclear, but according to several reports, as Islamists have consolidated their hold over Syria and begun occupying Sunni areas in western Iraq, Jordan and Israel have deepened their military and intelligence cooperation.

In Iraq, ISIS fighters are now said to be on Jordan's doorstep, threatening the 112-mile-long eastern border between the two countries. But according to a Western intelligence source who follows the government in Amman closely, the Jordanian military is even more concerned about the porous Syrian border to its north. In the east, the source said, a formidable desert provides a cushion, while the populated areas in the north are much harder to monitor and defend.

Jordan, a nation of 6.3 million, already reluctantly hosts 600,000 refugees escaping the horrors of the Syrian civil war. Now hundreds of Iraqi refugees have started trickling in as well, creating an enormous burden on the kingdom's limited resources.

How many of these refugees are radicalized and sympathize with the jihadists is unclear. Hundreds—perhaps thousands—of Jordanian citizens have joined the Syrian uprising against Assad. They, too, may eventually return home radicalized, and perhaps ready to heed ISIS's call to overthrow the king.

And in Jordan itself there are small but persistent groups that are plotting to overthrow the Jordanian government. They are concentrated in pockets like Maan, 110 miles south of the capital, Amman, and Zarqa, 70 miles northeast of the capital.

Although Jordan's ruling Hashemite family has a strong claim to Mecca, the birthplace of the Islamic prophet Mohammed, stretching back centuries to the time it served as the custodian of all holy sites, some Islamists call King Abdullah a traitor to Islam for cooperating with the West. In one YouTube video, ISIS fighters threaten to "slaughter" the king, whom they call a "tyrant."

Such bravado, however, may be more bark than bite. "ISIS is a bit overrated," says Yoram Schweitzer, an international terrorism researcher at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies. While the Salafist group managed to get its hands on a lot of cash, and while in Iraq it directs Sunni anger toward Baghdad and has seized a great deal of territory, Schweitzer says he doubts it is capable of making further gains in Iraq or threatening stable countries like Jordan.

Even the reports of the pact between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra may be more hype than reality, Schweitzer says. In light of the vicious fights in the past between the two groups, "I want to see that agreement with my own eyes," he says. Nevertheless, he adds, the danger from Islamist extremists undoubtedly exists. And though it's unlikely, if Jordan were to be overrun by the jihadists, "a very significant domino tile will fall" for Israel and the West, Schweitzer says.

Muasher, the former Jordanian foreign minister, notes that Amman "worked with the U.S. against Al-Qaeda even before September 11, in the 1990s." And Jordan remains an important American ally in the war against terrorism; the two countries share "a very strong relationship," he says.

Now a vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, Muasher also says the circumstances that led to ISIS's success in Iraq do not exist in Jordan. In Iraq, he says, the Sunnis were "marginalized and frustrated" by the government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. By contrast, he says, "the overwhelming majority of [those who dislike the Jordanian government] want changes within the monarchy" rather than to overthrow it.

King Abdullah has been politically flexible, allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in the political system and giving the country's Palestinian majority more political power than it has had in the past. But now, Muasher says, "I don't see any compromise with ISIS." Jordanians by and large reject the extremists, he says, and therefore Jordan will be well able to withstand the turmoil around it.

A Western diplomat who closely follows the region agreed. But, he added, "this is the situation as it is now. We are talking, after all, about the Middle East, where everything can change overnight."