[New York Review of Books] “… Containing the Islamist drift of Syria’s rebellion is a difficult and perhaps impossible task. Jubhat al-Nasra has a branch just across the border in the Syrian city of Daraa replete with its own website and a reputation for providing welfare amid chaos. The Brotherhood, too, continues to have great influence in the revamped Syrian opposition coalition; and for all the Jordanian vetting, defectors from the Syrian army have quickly shed their nationalist rhetoric for an Islamist one. Training is officially off-limits at the Jordanian desert camp near Mafraq, where an estimated 1,100 rebel Syrian fighters have been housed. But hundreds more Syrian army defectors, including the air force officers I met in Irbid, have established close ties to Jordan’s increasingly confident Islamist opposition, some of whom have Jihadi ties and are helping them stay in the conflict.
Wary of fueling Islamist tendencies in southern Syria, Jordan’s forces have sought to keep the most radical Jordanians from crossing the border. In October, a Jordanian border guard was killed in a gun-battle with Jihadi fighters on their way into Syria. Jordanian officials have also highlighted the risks of Jihadi blowback inside the kingdom, publicizing the arrest of eleven militants who were allegedly plotting to target the US embassy and Amman’s shopping malls. Local pundits warn that Syria’s Jihad may pose an even greater threat to Jordan’s stability than the war in Iraq, which led to al-Qaeda in Iraq’s bombings of three Amman hotels in 2005, in which sixty people were killed. “We had a 650-mile desert buffer with Iraq, but Syria’s fighting is right on our borders,” says Oraib Rantawi, an erstwhile royal advisor who now runs a Jordanian think-tank……
Initially Jordan followed Lebanon, in allowing refugees to mingle freely with the local population. But as the influx intensified, Jordan adopted Turkey’s approach of erecting vast internment camps, perhaps in an attempt to prevent Syria’s Sunni rebels inspiring their Jordanian counterparts. When I visited Zaatari recently, a flat dust-blown desert outpost surrounded by razor wire with sentries posted at its gates, thousands of Syrians were being held there. Babies are born in the wind, sleet and rain. Rare winter storms are sweeping their tents away. Inmates pass the day swapping photos of the corpses of loved ones on their mobile phones, and bemoan their flight from one purgatory to another.
Frustration frequently turns to protest. As I left the camp at sundown, riot police banged their shields in preparation for a showdown with camp internees protesting the lack of food. The detritus of previous clashes—a torched fire-brigade post, a looted medicine store—litters the camp. French soldiers stand guard apprehensively behind their field hospital fence.
Out of a sense of solidarity and tribal loyalty, some Jordanians are sheltering tribal kinsmen from over the border, and have sought to spirit them out of the camps. Despite reports that 60,000 Syrians have passed through Zaatari, UN aid workers express surprise at how empty it feels. After Jordan’s secret police ransacked the Amman apartment where his family was living illegally, Amin al-Masri, a Syrian who was forced to flee from Daraa, found refuge with the Faiz tribe in their domain east of Amman, which is off-limits to Jordan’s security forces. “I’ve given only a little so far,” he smiles. Though his eldest son was killed fighting in Daraa, he puts his arm round another son, a 14-year-old, and encourages him to head to the front. “Freedom is expensive.”
Others have gone into hiding…………..
As Syria’s civil war worsens, Jordanian officials say they fear a far larger exodus to come. The collapse of the single power station supplying 10 million Syrians in the south, they warn, could precipitate a mass rush to the border……
For Jordan’s indigenous East Bankers, the prospect of another wave of Palestinian refugees, following the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who arrived in previous decades, threatens to continue the process that over six decades has eroded their own status and turned them into a minority in their own country. Determined to keep out the Palestinians even after the bombardment of Daraa and Yarmouk camps, Jordan has allowed in only 2,000 of them, refusing entry to all the rest, including the widow’s husband, a rebel commander, who was sent back to his death in Syria after the rest of his Syrian unit was allowed in.
The few who sneaked in before Jordan closed its borders are penned in an abandoned hostel for Asian migrant workers in Cybercity, a largely empty industrial business park in northern Jordan. The graffiti on the hostel walls declares “Revolutionaries of Daraa,” but most feel more like prisoners than freedom fighters. Police maintain a twenty-four-hour watch at a checkpoint thirty meters from the hostel door. Relatives need permits to visit. Because of Jordanian pressure, the UN refuses to register them, unlike other refugees coming from Syria, as asylum seekers. “No one wants us,” says Rabhi Yousef, a retired Palestinian engineer who after four months of internment still wears a tie and pin-striped trousers and carries a walking stick in a vain attempt to keep up appearances. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has appealed to Israel to let them cross via Jordan into his West Bank cities, to no avail.
Should Syria fall to the Islamists, Jordan’s geopolitical situation might look much like it did in the 1950s, when anti-colonial Arab Nationalism swept through the region, leaving Jordan’s British-backed monarchy sandwiched between a Nasserist union of Egypt and Syria. Abdullah’s father, “pepperpot” King Hussein, survived long after Nasserism, ironically helped by support from the same Muslim Brotherhood his son now decries as a secret society bent on establishing a regional theocracy. Unlike his father or his fellow monarch, Mohammed VI of Morocco, King Abdullah has even shied from engaging his homegrown Islamists, leaving him even more isolated than his father was. Meanwhile, as Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, claims leadership of the new Sunni order, the Jordanian monarch increasingly seems to represent the old, although tensions between the two countries have temporarily eased after Egypt resumed its much gas supplies to Jordan. King Abdullah may yet regret the day he called on President Bashar to leave office, helping pave the way for the Islamists at his gates.…”