Archive for July 11th, 2014

Jordan boosts military presence on Iraq border

Elisa Oddone

July 1, 2014

RUWEISHED, Jordan — Scores of armored vehicles and Humvees with mounted machine guns have replaced the swarm of truck convoys on the gritty Jordanian desert border with Iraq after Sunni insurgents reportedly captured key crossings to Jordan and Syria earlier in June.

At least 10 tanks were seen dotting the border town of Karameh after Jordanian army units had been put on a state of alert in recent weeks along the country’s 200-kilometer (120-mile) eastern border, one of the Middle East’s busiest trade arteries.

Officials said rebels took over two key crossings in the predominantly Sunni Anbar governorate in western Iraq, the Treibel crossing with Jordan and the Walid crossing with Syria after Iraqi government forces had pulled out.

Initial reports suggested that fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) had taken over the Iraqi-Jordanian border crossing. However, Jordanian military personnel, speaking anonymously at the border, dismissed the claim, telling Al-Monitor that Iraqi troops loyal to the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were officially still holding the crossing point, though they suspected Sunni tribes were in control of the surrounding area.

“The border is the most important link in the national security chain,” commander Maj. Gen. Saber al-Mahayrah told reporters at the headquarters of Jordan’s border guard ahead of a visit to the border area.

“National interests go as far as securing the borders so that radical groups do not infiltrate neighboring countries. Our duty is to protect the kingdom’s border from illegal crossings.”

Despite possible threats, the border remains open.

“Those who want to travel from and to Jordan cross via legal areas can do it. Outside of these we would not allow anyone to come in or leave Jordan,” added Mahayrah.

Jordan, the most stable country in a region in turmoil and one of the closest US allies in the Middle East, faces threats on two of its four borders. The army has beefed up defenses on the kingdom’s 370-kilometer (230-mile) northern border with Syria, fearing the return of Jordanian Islamist fighters now seen as a direct national security threat to the country.

To the east, there is fear that ISIS fighters might try to cross into Jordan to expand their medieval-esque Islamic caliphate, wiping out the colonial borders they refuse to recognize.

ISIS has declared a caliphate in the territories it has seized across Iraq and Syria, renaming itself the “Islamic State” and proclaiming its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, caliph of the Muslim world.

Jordanian Interior Minister Hussein Majali shrugged off the ISIS threat to the kingdom after the ISIS proclamation in a cabinet meeting behind closed doors June 30, the local media reported. The minister referred to a security buffer zone of around 400 kilometers (250 miles) separating Jordan’s border from the military operations inside Iraq.

The minister said he was confident about the kingdom’s capacity to deal with any attempt to target its borders from Iraq or Syria.

Since June 17, the army has boosted its ability to protect the Karameh border, 360 kilometers (220 miles) east of Amman, 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the nearest civilian center and 560 kilometers (350 miles) from the Iraqi capital, after sweeping gains by the Sunni Islamist fighters inside Iraq.

“The border guards are living in a 24/7 state of caution supported by the Jordanian armed forces because of what is happening in Iraq. Our borders are safe and secure,” Mahayrah told reporters.

While armored vehicles were stationed at the Karameh border crossing, scores of open-topped Humvees, heavy machine-gun platforms able to carry anything from fully armed troops to anti-aircraft missiles, were seen on the road heading toward Karameh. Troops in battle dress uniform were seen patrolling the border outpost.

Officers refused to state the exact number of troops deployed, but told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that security had stepped up its presence along the long desert border, deploying dozens of British-manufactured tanks, rocket launchers and mortar guns.

“We are strengthening the presence of the forces on the border with both land and air units in case anything happens. But nothing has happened so far. We have not witnessed any clash,” a military officer told Al-Monitor at the border.

Traffic through the crossing is lighter than normal, but still flowing. Two single-engine Cobra attack helicopters hover low overhead to ward off any threat from across the border.

About 70 trucks could be seen crossing from Iraq in two hours, while less than 20 went the other way, Al-Monitor estimated. One driver said most truck drivers in Iraq were not working due to security concerns.

Ismail Kaoud, a truck driver arriving from the Iraqi town of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar governorate partly controlled by the militants since January, said he had not seen clashes or ISIS fighters on the road to Jordan.

“There is no ISIS. There were only tribal Sunni militias. Fallujah and Mosul are in the hands of militants. Maliki is inventing ISIS. The Treibel crossing is held by Iraqi forces and everything is normal. The Iraqi army is present on the border outpost with tanks and artillery. There is no ISIS on the border,” Kaoud said, indicating support for the Sunni rebellion.

No Iraqi has so far sought refuge in Jordan, said the officers. They said they were prepared in case refugees attempted to cross into the kingdom, citing concerns about a deluge of Iraqi refugees. The largely desert country with little natural resources has already been straining under the burden of some 600,000 Syrians fleeing the over three-year-old conflict, UN figures show.

Truck driver Obeid Mallah, from Baghdad, said the Iraqi police were in control of the crossing and that the highway between Baghdad and Amman was open. He sees no possibility of route closures.

“Crossing points were closed inside Iraq only for a couple of hours last week. Everything is back to normal now, except that it is very difficult to find fuel and prices surged inside the country. Work is fine. No one has threatened or attacked me on the road over the past weeks. Tribal militants are in control of the territory 150 kilometers [90 miles] from the border.”

Despite the threats from across the borders, military personnel showed little fear of the jihadist war entering their kingdom, saying, “There is no danger inside Jordan. Everyone loves [Jordan] and would step up to defend his country.”

But the military buildup along its border shows Jordan is not about to take any chances.

Source: al-Monitor.


Jordan admits to barring entry of Palestinian refugees from Syria

Aaron Magid

July 8, 2014

AMMAN, Jordan — Jordan’s leaders regularly highlight the country’s assistance to refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict. Jordan’s minister of planning and international cooperation, Ibrahim Sarif, told The New York Times that the presence of so many refugees from Syria in Jordan is equivalent to “the United States absorbing the entire population of Canada.”

Jordan’s embassy in Washington consistently posts self-complimentary messages from its Twitter account, such as a July 2 tweet: “#UNHCR’s @And_Harper praises #Jordan for its continued aid to #Syrian #refugees despite hurdles.” Yet the Jordanian government’s discrimination against Palestinian refugees fleeing the war in Syria — both at the border and inside Jordan — presents an alternative narrative.

At the beginning of the conflict in 2011, Jordanian authorities permitted Palestinian refugees from Syria to enter the country. However, the situation soon changed in the fall of 2012. Adam Coogle, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Amman, explained to Al-Monitor that the organization received reports at that time of Jordanian border guards refusing to admit Palestinian refugees from Syria. When the organization first approached the Ministry of Interior with its reports, the authorities denied the practice, Coogle said.

However, by January 2013 Jordan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour finally confessed to the non-admittance policy toward Palestinian refugees from Syria, telling Al-Hayat, “Jordan has made a clear and explicit sovereign decision to not allow the crossing to Jordan by our Palestinian brothers who hold Syrian documents.” Discussing Jordan’s regional challenges, Ensour added, “They should stay in Syria until the end of the crisis.”

Even for those who do manage to enter Jordan, Palestinian refugees from Syria face a precarious existence. Since many Palestinians are forced to assume a false identity to enter Jordan or cross into the country through unofficial routes, Palestinian refugees from Syria are not able to attain legal residency. United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) spokesman Christopher Gunness told Al-Monitor, “UNRWA has received reports that [Palestinian refugees from Syria] have had their Jordanian documents confiscated when they approached government offices and when refouled (expelled or returned) to Syria.” Gunness noted that UNRWA has learned of over 100 such cases since the policy of non-admission began.

Jordanian parliament member Tarek Khoury expressed his frustration with the government’s handling of the Palestinian refugees from Syria. Given the danger that Palestinians face returning to Syria, he exclaimed in an interview with Al-Monitor, “They don’t care. They are telling him: ‘Go and die!’”

Rami, a Palestinian refugee from Syria, expressed similar disillusion with the Jordanian policies toward his fellow refugees. Rami requested that his full name not be disclosed due to the sensitivity of the issue. He crossed into Jordan in 2012, during the early period when Palestinians were still permitted entry. However, while his Syrian counterparts soon moved out of the temporary holding facility, Rami remained stuck in those crowded confinements. “[The Jordanian authorities] treated me like a war criminal,” Rami told Al-Monitor. “I did not know that being born to a Palestinian-Syrian father was a transgression.” He also noted that with the new non-admittance policy, his family remains endangered in Syria and unable to join him in Jordan.

In forcibly repatriating Palestinian refugees back to Syria, the Jordanian authorities “are in violation of the principle of non-refoulement,” emphasized Coogle. They are sending back refugees to a “place [where] they face persecution.”

Coogle also suggested that by refusing to admit Palestinian refugees from Syria, Jordan was in violation of its obligations as a signee of the International Convention against Torture. The treaty prohibits countries from sending individuals back to a place where they face a high likelihood of torture. Since torture is so “widespread and rampant” in Syria, Jordan’s insistence on returning Palestinian refugees appears to fit this scenario.

The 3-year-old civil war in Syria has significantly impacted all of its neighbors, especially Jordan. The Hashemite Kingdom has absorbed approximately 600,000 refugees, of which 14,200 Palestinian refugees from Syria have asked for assistance from UNRWA, the UN agency that works only with Palestinian refugees. However, many more Palestinian refugees likely live in Jordan, as registering with UNRWA is not mandatory.

Although countless Syrians have faced dreadful conditions throughout the war, the Syrian government’s treatment of Palestinians has been especially gruesome. Syrian authorities have sporadically besieged the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, leaving the 18,000 inhabitants without food for days at a time. People living in the camp have been forced to eat animal feed to survive.

While many Palestinian refugees from Syria are living precariously in Amman, 190 of them are currently confined to a closed facility near the border town of Ramtha, also known as “Cyber City.” Gunness said that most of these refugees entered Jordan in 2012. They have remained confined here since the government ended its policy of allowing Jordanians to vouch for Palestinian refugees, as is the case with all other asylum seekers from Syria. Even when families are separated, the Jordanian authorities are unwilling to allow the refugees to reunite with their loved ones.

If refusing to admit Palestinian refugees from Syria causes such a humanitarian crisis, why does the Jordanian government continue with this practice? Jordanian society is divided between those of Palestinian origin and the so-called East Bankers. By absorbing another wave of Palestinians from Syria, this “piles onto the problem and makes it even worse,” Musa Shteiwi, the director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, told Al-Monitor. “Jordanians are worried about an influx of Palestinians because this will change the balance of power, demographics and the structure of the country.”

Despite receiving repeated inquiries, the Jordanian Ministry of Interior declined to comment for this article.

Noting the precarious treatment of Palestinian refugees from Syria, Gunness explained, “Palestinian refugees have fled the conflict in Syria for the same reasons as other civilians. UNRWA has appealed to the government of Jordan to provide Palestinian refugees from Syria the same humanitarian consideration provided to other refugees and allow them to enter and remain in Jordan without discrimination.”

Source: al-Monitor.