Jordan faces multiple and serious security risks

Iranian-backed militias are exploiting growing anger over Israel's war on Gaza and Jordan is as susceptible as ever to being drawn into the conflict which has spilled into the region

Jordanians chant slogans during a demonstration near the Israeli embassy in Amman on March 28, 2024, in support of Palestinians amid Israel's war on Gaza.
Jordanians chant slogans during a demonstration near the Israeli embassy in Amman on March 28, 2024, in support of Palestinians amid Israel's war on Gaza.

Jordan faces multiple and serious security risks

Given the fast-paced events unfolding in the region due to Israel’s war on Gaza, only major developments are making headlines.

With escalations in Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria dominating the news cycle, the unfolding developments in Jordan, though deeply concerning, are being relegated to the background.

Consequently, the substantial security threats posed by Iranian-backed groups to the Kingdom receive scant coverage.

These risks encompass heightened arms smuggling from Syria, exposure to the crossfire of military escalation against Israel, calls for violence by Hamas’ paramilitary wing and offers to support armed resistance inside Jordan.

Given the gravity of these developments and the imminent risks they pose, it's crucial to shed light on these threats to give them the attention they deserve. Failing to do so risks further escalations in Jordan, potentially propelling it to become the new headline.

Weapons and drugs seized by the Jordanian army in the December 18 operation.

Arms smuggling escalation

The 370-kilometer border between Jordan and Syria has long been a significant transit point for trafficking, particularly since the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

While smuggling operations have traditionally focused on transporting drugs through Jordan to the lucrative Arab Gulf market, recent months have seen a troubling new trend emerge, raising security concerns to new heights.

In the wake of the conflict in Gaza, Jordanian authorities have reported a notable surge in attempts to smuggle arms from Syria into the West Bank via Jordanian territory.

These arms, ranging from artillery rockets to guided weapons and explosives, are purportedly destined for insurgent groups in both Jordan and the occupied West Bank.

Furthermore, Jordan has witnessed the emergence of a new style of smuggling operation marked by heightened violence and direct confrontations with the Jordanian army.

Jordanian authorities squarely place responsibility for these smuggling activities on the Syrian state, citing its failure to counter such illicit operations.

However, the situation appears to be even more dire. According to Jordanian security officials and members of the Syrian opposition, the smugglers receive direct assistance from Iran-backed groups, including Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.

Read more: Jordanian air strikes break Syrian silence over drug trade

There has been a notable surge in attempts to smuggle arms from Syria into the West Bank via Jordanian territory.

Rocket and drone attacks

The military escalations during the Gaza war also posed direct security risks to Jordan. Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and Syria have conducted drone attacks against Israel through Jordanian airspace.

Some of these drones successfully reached their targets, such as the one launched from Syria that struck a school in Eilat in November.

However, others were reportedly intercepted before reaching their destinations, including a drone attack from Iraq on Eilat that Jordan shot down on December 21 after it crossed into its airspace.

Similarly, several rockets, including Quds-4 cruise missiles fired by the Houthis, either fell or were intercepted in the Jordanian province of Ma'an.

However, the risks posed by other attacks were more pronounced. This was evident in an Iranian-made drone attack against a US base on the northeastern border of Jordan in January, resulting in the deaths of three American soldiers and injuries to around 40 others.

It's worth noting that the use of Jordan as a transit route for drones stems from Israel's perception of its border with the kingdom as a low-risk zone.

Consequently, Tel Aviv has historically directed its sensors, radars, and patrol aircraft to regions where the risk of attacks is considered higher, such as southern Syria.

Additionally, the rugged terrain along the Jordan-Eilat border complicates drone detection and offers cover for devices approaching from a distance at low altitudes.

Protests and clashes

The security risks facing Jordan have escalated significantly in recent weeks, with mobilisation inside the country against Israel leading to violence. On 28 March 2024, the Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' paramilitary wing, released a video featuring Mohammed Deif, the group's chief of staff, urging citizens from Jordan, among other countries, to march towards Palestine.

In the video, he said, "Start marching now, not tomorrow, towards Palestine, and do not let restrictions, borders, or regimes deprive you of the honour of participating in the liberation of Al-Aqsa Mosque."

Notably, his calls followed violent incidents between pro-Palestine protestors and Jordanian authorities. Jordan—where nearly half the population is of Palestinian origin—has seen regular rallies in Amman and elsewhere in solidarity with Gaza.

However, recent demonstrations have seen rare clashes between the security forces and protestors. On 24 March, Jordanian anti-riot police clashed with and arrested dozens of demonstrators attempting to march toward the heavily guarded Israeli embassy in the capital, Amman.

These security incidents, which continued in the following days, coincided with an increase in calls circulated on social media platforms urging the storming and besieging of the Israeli embassy.

Notably, these attempts to storm the Israeli embassy occurred despite official sources stating it is devoid of any staff, following Jordan's decision in November to recall its ambassador from Israel and prevent the Israeli ambassador from returning to Jordanian territory.

Furthermore, clashes between Jordanian security forces and protesters erupted on 31 March between demonstrators and security forces in Jordan's largest Palestinian refugee camp, located 20 kilometres north of Amman.

Beqaa camp, home to more than 100,000 Palestinians, is one of six camps set up to accommodate the influx of refugees who fled the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the 1967 war,

Security forces stated in a statement that a "number of rioters" were arrested after "acts of rioting and vandalism, setting fires, and hurling stones at vehicles on the public road".

Weaponising Jordanians

Capitalising on the tense atmosphere in Jordan, Kata'ib Hezbollah—an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia suspected of being responsible for the attack on the US base inside Jordan— threatened on 1 April to retaliate against Israel for its air strikes in Damascus and the war in Gaza by arming Jordanians to carry out attacks.

The militia claims that it has the capacity to arm 12,000 members of the "Mujahideen of the Islamic Resistance in Jordan" with "light and medium weapons, anti-armour launchers, tactical missiles, millions of rounds of ammunition, and tons of explosives."

Capitalising on the tense atmosphere, Kata'ib Hezbollah has threatened to arm Jordanians to carry out attacks.

The militia talked about the prospect of "cutting off" the land border between Jordan and Israel as soon as the group received approval from Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Several attempts by protesters in early October to reach the country's border with the occupied West Bank were thwarted by riot police.

Therefore, supplying such arms to individuals in Jordan will likely lead to direct violent incidents with Jordanian security forces, who will protect the borders rather than Israeli troops.

While the claim might be mere propaganda, the statement indicates the desire of Iranian affiliates to use Jordan, which borders Syria and Iraq, as a launching pad for attacks against Israel.

The Jordanian government's public advocacy for war-battered Gaza has thus far helped contain public anger. However, Jordan faces numerous challenges that could render it vulnerable to security risks stemming from the spillover of neighbouring conflicts and the groups exploiting such vulnerabilities.

Therefore, the security risks posed by Iranian-backed militias to Jordan should not be overlooked, as Jordan's stability is not the only thing at stake here.

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