The dubious merits of the explosion that took place at Rukban Syrian refugee camp on Jordan’s north-eastern border, adjacent to the Iraqi border, are not clear. A car-bomb blew up last Saturday in the camp’s market area, leaving a large number of civilian casualties.
It is most likely that Daesh was behind the attack, and that it failed and did not go as planned. What is difficult to know, though, is if the main targets were the Jordanian soldiers at the border, as they were for a similar attack carried out by the extremist group last year which killed and wounded soldiers and policemen. Or were the targets some of the Free Syrian Army factions that cooperate with Jordan and try to help with security in Rukban, which is home to nearly 100,000 Syrian refugees, a large portion of whom are women and children?
The incident (leaks say that previous attacks had targeted the new Syrian Army in the Rukban area) emphasises Jordan’s official, but undeclared, analysis, which regards the north-eastern area of the kingdom, adjacent to Deir Al-Zour, the Syrian Desert and Homs, as the number one source of external threats. It is expected to become the stronghold of Daesh this summer after the group loses control over the city of Mosul, and in light of increased US pressure in Raqqa, in the north of Syria.
It is clear, then, that the threat is getting closer and clearer for Jordan. Daesh, in the aftermath of Mosul, will intensify this danger and make the northern borders the largest source of security threats. In addition to the Syrian Desert, the group is strengthening its presence in Deraa in the rural west, through the so-called Khaled Ibn Al-Walid Army, which owes allegiance to the extremists.
The dilemma of the north-eastern region, particularly when dealing with Rukban camp, lies in the overlap of military, security and humanitarian considerations and the varied dimensions of dealing with this thorny issue. Jordan, after the previous Rukban bombing at the border, worked on strengthening its military reserves and closing the northern areas, while dealing cautiously with Rukban and Hadlat camps, not least due to reports and information about a growing Daesh influence within them.
The other dimension of these justified military and security procedures is that Daesh, which seeks to expand its influence in the Syrian Desert after losing large tracts of land in Iraq, will invest in the misery, despair, frustration and lack of aid and basic necessities in Rukban and Hadlat. The group will no doubt recruit new members and strengthen its ability to mobilise at a time when it seems as if the world has given up on the refugees who had to flee from their homes.
Jordan cannot deal with this huge humanitarian challenge alone, or combine military and security operations on one hand with humanitarian efforts on the other. It is clear that the gradual movement of Daesh members from Iraq to the Syrian Desert reflects the failure of international strategies, and the contradiction of agendas between pushing it out of the areas that are under US control into areas known to be under Russian and Syrian regime control, thus taking it out of Iraq and implicating Syria with it. It is this contradiction which has allowed the group to regain control of Tadmur (Palmyra) in Homs, and to strengthen its power for trying to take the Syrian Army out of Deir Al-Zour province altogether.
The other aspect of Jordan’s dilemma when dealing with this challenge lies in the fundamental doubts in its ability to continue relying on the strategy of training Syria’s armed opposition forces to face up to Daesh and thus use them as a cushion to protect the Hashemite Kingdom.
The imbalance in this strategy comes from two points: the first is linked to what happened with the so-called tribal army, or New Syrian Army, which Jordan has trained and armed along with the Americans, in order to face Daesh in Al-Bokamal then Deir Al-Zour; the initial battles were disappointing. The New Syrian Army forces suffered a disastrous defeat and lost most of their weapons. This confirmed the Jordanian point of view — which was not understood by the US — that rushing the preparation and training of these forces and not being certain of the outcomes will be counterproductive; that’s exactly what happened.
The second point is that the main Jordanian allies in the Syrian opposition are the southern front factions, which are now in a very bad position. Their allies forced them to stop fighting with the Syrian regime and to commit to the truce, which led to a major crisis within the factions. Also, their allies are expected to abandon them in case there is an Iranian-Syrian military attack on Deraa, which is the most predictable scenario to happen soon, after finishing with Damascus.
It is expected that the Jordanians should remain neutral, in light of the shifts in the US and Western position, especially under new President Donald Trump, which means that the southern front will be left with only two options. The first is to surrender and fade away and the second is to have a good percentage of its members go with Daesh, or at least with Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham. This means that the front that used to be a support for Jordan might be gone, or its members might turn against it in the event of a military attack on Deraa.
The regional scene, with an Iraq that is free of Daesh, does not look any better for Jordan. On the contrary, the threat from the extremist group has become clearer and closer to Jordan in every sense.
Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadid, 24 January, 2017
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.