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Battling infiltrators

Apr 22,2014 - Last updated at Apr 22,2014

In an extraordinary development, last Wednesday Royal Jordanian Air Force intercepted and then destroyed at least four vehicles that tried to cross the border from Syria.

It was an unexpected escalation that underlined Jordan’s determination to stop the flow of infiltrators, whether fighters or smugglers, from Syria.

Over the past weeks and months, Jordan Armed Forces arrested, killed or turned back tens of individuals who tried to cross the border illegally. Some of those intercepted were rebel fighters, including Jordanians.

The short statement by the Jordan Armed Forces did not specify who the infiltrators were. It said they used a “difficult geographical region to traverse” and the Royal Air Force fired warning shots at the vehicles, but they failed to comply and “therefore the [Jordanian fighter jets], in accordance with the rules of engagement, destroyed these vehicles”.

Unconfirmed media reports said the infiltrators were in fact smugglers, while others said that they were US-trained rebel forces. 

Israeli sources claimed they were in fact Al Qaeda terrorists who had come from Iraq, through Syrian territory, and tried to cross into Jordan, which has a 370-kilometre-long border with Syria.

The fear of extremist fighters trying to find haven in the Kingdom is real. Amman has denied reports that it is involved in training Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters in the northern parts of the country. 

It rejected repeated Syrian claims that it allowed sophisticated weapons to pass into rebel hands. None of these claims can be independently corroborated.

Jordan is a close ally of anti-Syrian regime Gulf countries and the United States, and a member of the inner core of the Friends of Syria grouping. But officially, Jordan has always backed a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

The destabilisation, and possible partition, of Syria is a source of grave concern for Jordan.

On the other hand, Jordan has received the second highest number of Syrian refugees, after Lebanon. 

Numbering between 600,000 and one million, including at least 130,000 refugees in Al Zaatari Camp, the continued flow of refugees has burdened Jordan’s Treasury and resources. 

A number of Jordanian deputies and politicians called on the government to seal off the borders with Syria. And last week, the Foreign Ministry said that Jordan’s ability to absorb additional Syrian refugees has reached capacity levels.

It is now likely that Jordan will tighten control of its borders with Syria, following last Wednesday’s incident.

Fears that the Damascus regime may now turn its attention to the southern Syrian governorate of Daraa may have heightened Amman’s readiness to take extraordinary response to infiltrators.

Control of the southern part of Syria has exchanged hands over the past months. Some reports say members of Jabhat Al Nusra are in control of swathes of the southern province, while the FSA is in charge of most towns there.

The regime has dropped explosive barrels on the city of Darra and others during the past weeks. There were speculations that the rebels were getting ready to launch a southern front, which is less than 50 kilometres from Damascus.

Another source of concern for Jordan is the fact that there are 1,000 to 2,500 Jordanians fighting with the rebels, mostly with Jabhat Al Nusra, which has links to Al Qaeda.

Salafist jihadists from Jordan are said to be in charge of both Jabhat Al Nusra and other rebel groups.

The possibility of some of those fighters returning to Jordan raises legitimate security concerns.

Dozens of Salafist jihadists, who were active in Syria, are standing trial before Jordan’s State Security Court.

Concerns about a possible spillover from Syria’s civil war into Jordan are genuine. Amman is worried about the increasing influence of the notorious Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. 

Regardless of who was in the camouflaged vehicles that were targeted last Wednesday, Jordan’s firm response is testimony to the Kingdom’s readiness to deal with potential threat to its national security.

Jordan has dealt with terrorism before. In the last decade, it has been instrumental in tracking and destroying Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, Osama Ben Laden’s lieutenant in Iraq, who was responsible for the 2005 Amman hotel bombings.

And in the 1990s, it confronted the threat of battle-hardened Jordanians who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, the so-called Afghan Arabs. This time, it appears that Jordan’s determination to stave off threats by infiltrators from Syria is as high if not more.

The spillover effect has already taken place in beleaguered Lebanon. Sleeping cells loyal to the Damascus regime or runaway fighters seeking refuge in Jordan will be dealt with fiercely and ruthlessly.

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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