Jordan Poised to Be Middle East Partner of Choice, but Must Improve Internal Security
Jordanian troops parachute and fast-rope from a pair of Blackhawk helicopters, descending on insurgents as two of the Kingdom’s F-16s pass overhead—all for the benefit of dignitaries watching from the sidelines. Last week, Jordan hosted the Special Operations Forces Exhibition (SOFEX), one of the world’s largest arms expos. Devoted to special forces, the biannual event showcases the Kingdom’s capabilities and technologies. With regional tensions running high, Jordan continues to flex its convening power as an Arab state aligned with Western interests.
Jordan is positioning itself as the regional partner of choice. In April, over 3,000 American troops traveled to Jordan for the two-week Eager Lion exercise, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM)’s “premier exercise in the Levant region.” As Jordan’s northern neighbor unleashed chemical weapons on his own people, Jordanian forces drilled chemical warfare evacuations alongside American Marines. The Kingdom has also partnered with NATO on joint efforts to improve defense capacity building and cybersecurity. Meanwhile, the Jordanian military is enhancing its own professionalism by retiring royals from senior positions and training competent NCOs. Jordan was among the first to host newly appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who described the bilateral relationship as “indispensable.”
Jordanian preparations are especially significant given the possibility of a major overhaul of America’s posture in the Middle East. The current hosts of America’s major military installations in the region, Turkey and Qatar, have pursued policies at odds with core American security interests, by financing terror groups and collaborating with Iran. In Syria, Turkey has been more of an adversary than an ally, threatening to invade areas where American troops are stationed. Both Turkey and Qatar seem more interested in enhancing their relations with Iran and Russia than pursuing shared security goals with Washington.
As such, some policymakers and analysts have considered Jordan as an alternative host for American operations in the region. Its king is staunchly pro-American, and the country has been an official major non-NATO ally (MNNA) for over a decade. Jordan’s Azraq Air Base already hosts American aircraft operating in Iraq and Syria. In December 2017, President Trump signed a defense budget allocating $143 million to upgrade the base, the largest allocation and over double the next leading.
Other NATO allies have already shifted their forces to bases in Jordan. In summer 2017, Germany relocated its troops from Turkey’s Incirlik to the Azraq base in Jordan following disputes with Ankara. Within months, the base was fully operational, and Luftwaffe Tornadoes now join the coalition fight against the Islamic State from their new home in Jordan. As a further investment in Jordanian stability, Germany delivered $22 million worth of military equipment to the Kingdom.
But is Jordan fully poised to inherit Turkey and Qatar’s responsibilities? Terrorism in Jordan raises significant force protection concerns. Although some spillover from the Syrian conflict might be expected, further instability brews beneath the Kingdom’s surface. In 2016, three American military trainers were shot and killed while working with Jordanian forces at an air base in the country’s south. A year prior, a Jordanian soldier opened fire at a police training center in the capital, killing two Americans, along with two Jordanians and a South African. In addition, Jordan has a significant Palestinian population, which may respond negatively to the U.S. decisions to reduce funding for UNRWA and move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
These challenges do not negate Jordan’s utility as a partner. But the United States must be confident of Jordan’s internal security before relocating any major American military installations. Even without an imminent relocation, America has a responsibility and interest in helping a reliable ally and reinforcing Jordan’s efforts to professionalize its military. The recently signed Memorandum of Understanding, the largest in the history of the bilateral relationship, is an important step. If nothing else, America will demonstrate that partnership comes with rewards and simultaneously hedge against Turkey and Qatar’s dangerous policies. The conclusion of anti-Islamic State operations presents a unique opportunity for America to evaluate and define its interests in the region, starting with the company it keeps.
Alexandra N. Gutowski is a senior military affairs analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow her on Twitter @angutowski.