The Syrian Civil War: A Jordanian perspective

SUMMARY

As the Syrian civil war grinds into its seventh year, the consequences for Jordanian trade, security and infrastructure continues to increase.

INTRODUCTION

As of February 2017, a new round of peace talks is taking place between Syrian regime officials and leaders of various rebel groups in the Kazakhstani city of Astana. The negotiations are the latest in a string of attempts to find a political solution to Syria’s civil war, which broke out in 2011 when anti-government protests morphed into a full-scale armed rebellion against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The negotiations have so far borne few tangible results.

The civil war has been devastating. Over 400,000 people have been killed as the result of the conflict, over 6.5 million have become internally displaced persons (IDPs) and the United Nations World Food Programme estimates that nine million individuals are either facing or are at severe risk of food insecurity. Syrian infrastructure has collapsed. Previously vibrant trading cities such as Aleppo have become the sites of fierce urban fighting. The Islamic State insurgent group controls substantial parts of the country’s oil and gas fields, primarily located around the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. International trade has effectively ceased, and Syrian infrastructure has almost entirely collapsed.

Refugee flows from Syria to neighbouring countries continue unabated. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that around 2.8 million Syrians have fled to Turkey. Lebanon has taken in over a million, and Jordan around 655,000. These numbers, however, do not reflect non-refugee Syrians who have fled the conflict: around 600,000 of whom are based in Jordan.

The humanitarian and economic situation within Syria is catastrophic, and without a political solution in sight, thousands more will die. However, the civil war has also had a major impact on Syria’s southern neighbour, Jordan.

The impact on Jordan

The kingdom of Jordan, a pro-Western monarchy lying on Syria’s southern flank, has been less beset by political violence than Lebanon or Turkey. The effectiveness of the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate –  the country’s primary military intelligence service –  at identifying and neutralising security threats is well above the regional average. Despite this, the chaotic security environment within Syria has had a knock-on effect on Jordan’s own internal stability. Islamic State fighters have launched attacks on the Jordanian border, such as a deadly 21 January vehicle-borne suicide improvised explosive device attack on the al-Rukban refugee camp. Several other, similar attacks occurred at the border, notably in June and October 2016, both of which deliberately targeted civilian refugee populations. Although the direct impact of these assaults was highly localised, they represented a desire by Islamic State fighters to penetrate Jordanian border defences, something which they likely have the capability to achieve within the one-year outlook.

Acts of political violence in Jordan have not been entirely restricted to the border zones, however. On 18 December 2016, Islamic State loyalists launched an attack with small-arms n Karak, a western city popular with foreign tourists. Ten victims died in the incident, including one Canadian tourist, before the perpetrators were shot dead by Jordanian security forces. Further attacks in-country are likely, as Islamic State compensates for territorial setbacks in Iraq and Syria by shifting from defending territory to a more traditional regional campaign of political violence. Increased regional activity by Islamic State and other non-state armed groups (NSAGs) would pose a major security threat to Jordan.

This risk is particularly acute given common assumptions by security managers that the threat level in Jordan is substantially below the regional average. Further attacks are likely in the one-year outlook, whether from foreign fighters infiltrating Jordanian territory or from radicalised ‘lone wolves’ inspired to commit attacks in-country.

A2 advises site security managers, particularly those responsible for farms and upstream oil facilities, a number of which are concentrated near the Syrian border, to review whether their own security procedures are sufficient to deter attacks as a matter of urgency. The Yarmouk oil deposit, for example, is located close to the Syrian border. The Risha gas field, in the far north-east, is an area at particular risk, due to its proximity to Islamic State holdings in Syria and its removal from major urban areas, where emergency response capability will be much higher.

Acts of political violence in Jordan have not been entirely restricted to the border zones.

Tourism

The Karak incident, and any further Islamic State or other NSAG operations, will have a disproportionate economic effect on Jordan. Although it is too soon for reliable statistics, trends from both Tunisia and Turkey – which have been victims of terrorist operations against tourists over the past year – suggest that political violence will sharply discourage tourism. A2’s previous Monthly Insight from May 2016 deals with the relationship between tourism and terrorism with respect to North Africa.

A similar pattern is likely in Jordan, which is heavily reliant on the tourism industry. The World Travel & Tourism Council estimates that the tourism industry’s direct contribution to the national economy is JOD1,446 million (USD2,040 million), or around 5.6 per cent of total GDP. Meanwhile, the total contribution of tourism to employment is around 18 per cent of total formal employment. Any slump in tourism numbers will both lead to a reduction in economic growth and an increase in the unemployment rate, which already stands at 15.8 per cent. Between January and June 2016, around 2.2 million tourists visited Jordan, according to the country’s own statistics authority.

The Jordanian economy is, as the World Bank said in November 2016, ‘subdued’. Jordanian foreign exchange reserves had decreased to USD12.5 billion as of July 2016, an 11 per cent drop from the same period the year before. Overall exports have declined around 5.5 per cent. The Jordanian government has taken measures to improve its economy, including raising taxes in areas ranging from construction to tobacco. The country’s somewhat fragile economy, therefore, leaves it vulnerable to security incidents that could deter tourism.

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