Thursday, March 7, 2013

Jordan's multiplying Syria woes

[Originally posted at NOW]

While the international community often singles out Lebanon as the principal victim of so-called “spillover” from the armed conflict in Syria, less discussed but arguably no less dramatic are the transformations the two-year-long war is effecting on its southern neighbor, Jordan.

Like Lebanon, the Hashemite Kingdom has officially pursued a policy of neutrality in the Syrian conflict, calling for a “diplomatic and peaceful solution to the problem.” Yet despite such caution, the war next door threatens to cripple the already-burdened country with a plethora of serious humanitarian, security, and socioeconomic strains.

These are perhaps most evident in the now-notorious Zaatari refugee camp, erected last summer in the desert east of the city of Mafraq, near the Syrian border. Originally intended for 60,000 Syrian refugees, it now houses over 146,000 in fabric tents, with thousands of new arrivals every week.

Living conditions inside are very poor, with poverty rife and scant access to basic food, water, and healthcare needs, according to an aid worker in the camp NOW met in Amman over the weekend. Between 7 and 10 babies are born inside the camp every day – sometimes dying just days later. Infectious diseases such as polio and malaria are on the rise, and reportedly spreading beyond the camp’s borders. So desperate are some families for money, said the aid worker, that they are selling their daughters as brides for as little as JD100 ($140) and even prostituting them for JD10 ($14).

Accordingly, frustration among residents is increasingly leading to organized protests and even violence, sometimes met with responses from Jordanian security forces. Tensions and fears are further stoked by Syrian mukhabarrat, or regime informants, who are widely believed to have infiltrated the camp.

Yet Syria’s shadow over Jordan extends far beyond Zaatari, and not just because there are an additional 270,000 refugees elsewhere in the country (projected to total 1 million by year-end). The refugee issue aside, the conflict presents a significant potential security threat to the Kingdom, according to Jumana Ghneimat, editor-in-chief of Al-Ghad newspaper.

“The situation here is very sensitive and very dangerous,” Ghneimat told NOW. “There are Salafist groups here in Jordan that are going to Syria. About 300 Jordanian Salafists are fighting in Syria now. This is a big problem for Jordan that could repeat the Iraq scenario. If you remember, Jordanian Salafists went there and then returned and made many problems here in 2005,” a reference to the series of hotel bombs in Amman that killed some 60 people, and were later claimed by al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

“So maybe when they’re finished in Syria they’ll come back here and conduct new operations,” said Ghneimat. A leading Syrian opposition brigade, Jabhat al-Nusra, was designated a terror organization by the United States for its alleged affiliation with AQI.

Additionally, of perhaps more immediate concern is the drain on the economy, which faces an unprecedented crisis. For the first time, Jordanians may face regular electricity blackouts this summer, à laLebanon. “It’s a possible scenario,” said Ghneimat. “If they don’t increase the electricity output, it might happen. It already happened once or twice last year, when we didn’t have so many refugees, so what do you think will happen this year, or the next?” Such cuts could potentially be widely disruptive, Ghneimat added, since Jordanians do not have easy access to generators, as do the Lebanese.

Water is a similar concern. “Jordan is the third poorest country in the world for water. We already face a serious water problem. To provide now for more than 400,000 Syrians is a huge [challenge],” said Ghneimat.

These shortages in turn add strain to the government’s budget, which currently subsidizes such commodities. “The refugees put certain pressures on the infrastructure, consuming water and electricity which are subsidized,” said Dr. Yusuf Mansur, economist and CEO of Envision Consulting Group. They also increase “demand for education, pressure public schools, and public healthcare, when it’s available.”

Mansur argues, however, that there are also economic benefits to the situation. “It’s a mixed bag,” he told NOW. “In terms of tourism, those in countries like Lebanon who used to go to Syria will now opt for the safer retreat of Jordan. In terms of investment, as well, it has diverted some capital to Jordan, because other countries were more affected by Syria than us.”

As for disruption to trade routes through Syria, “this is beneficial for the Aqaba port,” said Mansur. “From Aqaba goods can go through the Suez Canal and then the Mediterranean.” Another possibility is re-routing land exports and imports through Iraq, he added.

However, potential economic upsides notwithstanding, there appears to be little prospect of overall improvement in a situation fuelled by a war whose viciousness shows no sign of abating. When NOW returned to Beirut from Amman on Sunday, it was on one of the first planes to take a new route south and west over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, approaching Lebanon from the Mediterranean. The airline announced the change had been made to avoid the previous path over Syria in the interest of “the safety of passengers.” For the time being, it seems, Jordan is destined to remain what the Zaatari camp aid worker called “a gas tank not far from a lit match.”

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