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Syria war threatens to draw in Jordan, analysts warn

Jordanian armed forces prepare a decontamination site on a training base near Amman, Jordan, during the Eager Lion 16 exercise in May 2016. Jordan’s backing of U.S.-supported opposition groups in Syria’s civil war is threatening to undermine the country’s security, said a retired Lebanese general and military analyst.

RAYMOND KOKEL/U.S. ARMY

By SLOBODAN LEKIC | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 22, 2016

The latest suicide attack on a Jordanian border post in which six troops died highlights how quickly the 5-year war in neighboring Syria could engulf one of America’s closest Arab allies, analysts warned Wednesday.

Jordan’s backing of U.S.-supported opposition groups in Syria’s civil war is threatening to undermine the country’s security, said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese general and military analyst.

“Jordan must consider changing its policy of supporting the rebels if it wants to avoid repeated incidents like this,” he said in a telephone interview from Beirut. Jordan has long been a crucial conduit for moderate opposition groups smuggling arms, supplies and fighters into Syria. Extremists such as the Islamic State group and Nusra Front — al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria — have mostly been supplied through Syria’s northern border with Turkey.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II vowed that his country would respond with an “iron fist” to attempts to undermine the kingdom’s security after six soldiers were killed and 14 injured Tuesday when a vehicle crossed the border and exploded in their midst at al Rukban, about 200 miles northeast of the capital, Amman.

“Such heinous terrorist acts will only make us more determined to carry on with our fight against terrorism and its groups who plotted in the dark against the men who protect the country and its borders,” Abdullah said.

Tuesday’s attack followed an incident earlier this month in which five Jordanian security agents were murdered in a Palestinian refugee camp near Amman.

No group has claimed responsibility for either attack, but they come after Jordanian security forces cracked down on suspected Islamic State sympathizers in the northern city of Irbid in March, killing seven.

Gen. Mishaal Zaben, Jordan’s chief of staff, announced after Tuesday’s attack that the border area with Syria would be considered a closed military zone and warned that any movement within it would be handled “without leniency.”

The Islamic State has repeatedly threatened to depose Abdullah, and the group has in the past tried to smuggle weapons across the northern border to sleeper cells inside the country.

Jordan is part of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq. But Jaber said that previous Jordanian military actions against Islamic State militants in Syria had achieved little. The terror group shrugged off dozens of retaliatory air raids on its positions in Syria last year after it had executed a captured Jordanian air force pilot, he said.

The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad lost control of Syria’s eastern border with Jordan about two years ago. The remote desert region has been held since then by Islamic State militants or anti-Assad rebels and Nusra fighters.

“There is a lot of concern about the latest incident, which the Jordanians say bears the hallmark of Islamic State and other radical groups,” said Jamal Halaby, an independent political analyst and former journalist in Amman. “This latest attack clearly caught the Jordanians by surprise, off guard.”

Halaby said he expected Jordan to adopt a more proactive role in the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State.

“Until now, Abdullah has adopted an essentially defensive posture, but now we will see the Jordanians attacking not just Islamic State, but also Nusra and other Islamist militants,” he predicted. “Abdullah will press ahead and strike at the militants.”

Jordan has long been considered a pillar of stability in the middle of the world’s most volatile region. Like his late father, King Hussein, who died in 1999, Abdullah has managed to navigate through crises that have ringed his country — with Syria to the north, Iraq to the east and Israel and the Palestinian territories to the west.

Jordan also has remained remarkably resilient during the past five years despite the influx of more than 600,000 Syrian refugees since the civil war in that country started in 2011. About 70,000 of them are housed in a camp not far from the al Rukban crossing where the latest attack occurred.

“We are going to continue our unwavering support to the Jordanian armed forces,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in Washington on Tuesday. “What’s going on in Syria is not a philosophical exercise for the Jordanians. It is very real because of the threat posed, as we saw today, but also represented by the work that they’re doing to help so many refugees.”

Abdullah — who continues to enjoy strong support from Jordan’s six million people — faces a difficult dilemma domestically on how to react to the latest bloodshed, analysts said.

“Many Jordanians believe very strongly that the country should not be involved in the Syrian war in any way,” said Labib Kamhawi, a prominent Jordanian political analyst. “They are afraid because incidents like this show the war could spill over into Jordan like wildfire.”

“But Abdullah must also satisfy the tribes, who constitute the core of the military establishment in Jordan and who want to make sure the blood of their kids will not go unavenged,” he said. “It’s a very delicate balancing act for him.”

lekic.slobodan@stripes.com

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