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Jordan and the Trump Administration
04.11.2017

This working paper by David Schenker, Director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute/ US, was presented at the conference, “Jordan in a Changing Regional Environment: Scenarios for the Next Phase” - organized by Al-Quds Center for Political Studies from 4-6 November 2017 in Amman, Jordan, at the Royal Amman Hotel. 


US/Jordan Relations:

Jordan is perhaps Washington’s best Arab ally. On a broad range of issues—from security to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to the ideological battle of ideas against Islamic extremism—the U.S. and Jordan are on the same page. The relationship is old, dating back to the first years after the kingdom’s independence, and increasingly, the ties are close. More importantly, the support for Jordan in Washington is deep, regardless of who sits in the White House. Indeed, Jordan is a rare issue amidst a toxically-divided congress of bipartisan agreement. Whether Democrat or Republican, Congressmen are without exception, behind Jordan.

To a certain extent, because Jordan’s King Abdullah has established his own personal relationships with key U.S. legislators, the U.S.-Jordanian bilateral relationship is immune to the ripples of changes in Administration. That said, successive U.S. Administrations have embraced the kingdom, and in recent decades, as the U.S.-Jordanian strategic partnership has blossomed, these closer ties have been reflected in dramatic increases in US economic and military funding for the kingdom.

The Trump Administration, which took office on January 20, 2017, has not diverged from the trend. King Abdullah was among the first foreign leaders to meet with senior officials in the new administration. Indeed, Vice President Pence met with the king just ten days after the transition. President Trump met with King Abdullah a month later—his first meeting with an Arab head of State. The readout from the February 2 meeting published by the White House, basically encapsulates the perspective of every U.S. Administration since 1994, highlighting the importance of the kingdom to Washington:

The President conveyed the U.S.'s commitment to Jordan's stability, security, and prosperity. The President thanked the King for his leadership in promoting peace and stability in the region. He highlighted Jordan's critical contributions to defeating ISIS and discussed the possibility of establishing safe zones in Syria. President Trump underscored that the United States is committed to strengthening the security and economic partnership with Jordan. The President also emphasized Jordan's essential role in serving as a model of tolerance and moderation in the region. The two leaders discussed the King returning to Washington for an official visit in the near future.

The focus on the close strategic relationship with Jordan—designated a major U.S. non-NATO ally in 1996—is a perennial Administration talking point about the kingdom. And for good reason. In recent years, and particularly since the onset of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, stable Arab states allied with Washington have been in shorter supply. The theme of Jordan’s “tolerance and moderation,” is another often-mentioned trope, which resonates ever more for U.S. policymakers in the post 9-11 world.

But in the first year of the Trump Administration, during which the U.S. was focused specifically on the military defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Jordan has taken on even more import to Washington. Not only is Jordan a confederate in the battle of ideas against Islamist extremism, it is a vital ally in the military fight against the Islamic State and the principal base of U.S. air operations against the group in Syria. In short, Jordan is critical to the success of the campaign against ISIS.

This Administration, like its predecessors, appreciates Jordan’s pro-west orientation, but also appears to understand the immense challenges facing the kingdom. While incredibly perseverant, the kingdom is not immune to the regional tumult. Jordan today faces enormous economic and security challenges aggravated since 2011 by the arrival of around a million Syrian refugees. Through it all, Jordan has endured as an island of relative stability, a state with seemingly endless resilience. And yet, the stability of Jordan cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, seven years into the war in Syria, the pressures on Jordan are so severe, that for the Trump Administration, helping to insulate the kingdom from Syria's spillover should be a top Middle East policy priority.

Security

The 1994 Wadi Arava peace treaty between Israel and Jordan made it possible for Washington to start providing Jordan with security assistance. Today, this assistance, which underpins bilateral security cooperation, is perhaps the cornerstone of the U.S.-Jordan relationship. And security cooperation has blossomed since King Abdullah’s ascent to the throne in 2000. Back in 2000, baseline U.S. economic and military assistance to Jordan totaled just over $228 million. By 2016, U.S. funding for Jordan, both military and economic reached almost $1.7 billion, equivalent to nearly ten percent of the kingdom’s entire annual budget.

From intelligence sharing, to joint military training and operations, to U.S. basing of aircraft on Jordanian soil, the strategic cooperation between Washington and Amman is extensive and impressive. Consider how CENTCOM Commander Gen. Votel described Jordan to the Senate Armed Services Committee this past March:

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is one of our strongest and most reliable partners in the Levant sub-region. Jordan provides access, basing, and overflight equal to or greater than that provided by any other partner in the USCENTCOM AOR. The Jordanian Armed Forces (JAF) and the Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) continue to make key contributions in support of the Counter-ISIS Campaign.

Jordan’s army and intelligence service is considered by many in Washington to be among the best in the region. And yet, concerns persist in Washington about the spillover from Syria, and in particular, about Jordan’s security performance in 2016, which did not inspire confidence.

In March 2, 2016, for example, it took Jordan’s best commando unit, the 71st Counterterrorism Battalion, more than 12 hours to defeat an isolated cell of seven IS terrorists in the northern town of Irbid. The terrorists were eventually killed, but so too was the head of the CT unit, in an operation said to have been severely hampered by breakdowns in communication.

Then on June 6, a lone attacker entered a General Intelligence Directorate (GID) complex in the Baqaa refugee camp twenty minutes north of Amman, shooting and killing five officers before escaping. Just two weeks later, operatives detonated a car bomb at a Jordanian military base in Rukban on the Syrian border, killing six soldiers. During both of these attacks, the guards on watch were apparently asleep on duty.

Finally, in December 2016, an Islamic State attack and the subsequent manhunt in the southern town of Kerak killed 17 people and injured 34 others. YouTube videos taken during the incident showed police officers shouting from the windows of the local station house, pleading with local citizens for more weapons and ammunition.

Potential Irritants

While these security lapses had a direct impact on Jordanians, several other incidents affected Americans in the kingdom. In November 2015, two U.S. trainers—as well as two South Africans and two Jordanians—were killed by a rogue officer at the Jordanian International Police Training Center (JIPTC) facility in Muwaqar. The U.S.-Jordanian investigation into the incident revealed that the gunman, who was killed during the incident, had been radicalized. Worse, it was later discovered that the murder weapon the gunman used in that attack had been provided to the GID by the CIA to arm moderate Syrian rebels. This particular AK-47 rifle—and thousands of others—never reached its intended destination. According to the New York Times, the guns were sold by the Jordanian mukhabarat on the black market.

More troubling, less than a year later, a Jordanian 1st Sgt. killed three American Special Forces operators at the entrance of the Prince Feisal Airbase at Jafr, in the south of the kingdom. Notwithstanding the availability of security camera footage, for five months after the incident, the Jordanian authorities inexplicably continued to blame the U.S. soldiers for the incident, claiming they violated security procedures. Some officials even suggested that alcohol was involved. It was only after U.S. Special Forces Command issued their investigative report—which had been prepared with the cooperation of Jordan—that the kingdom finally admitted that U.S. forces did not precipitate the incident. And only then, after intense public pressure by the families of the slain U.S. troops, did Jordan finally agree to prosecute the Sergeant, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Taken together, the terrorist attacks and the so-called green on blue killings of Americans, highlighted some problems in Jordanian security. Responding to these lapses, Jordan completely shook up its security apparatus, firing Interior Minister Salameh Hammad, GID chief Fouad Shobaki, and simultaneously, in one day, dismissing all six general staff officers in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While Jordan’s security apparatus remains among the best in the region, this overhaul appears to have reflected a lack of confidence from the palace, based on the recent underperformance of these services.

The shakeup was likely necessary. But it does not mitigate the issues reflected in the diversion of CIA weapons, the poor handling of the fallout from the killing of U.S. SOF troops in Jordan, or the incidence of green on blue attacks in general in the kingdom. To be sure, Washington appears to have moved on, but these kinds of incidents, should they become more routine, could become irritants in what is otherwise an excellent bilateral relationship.

Syria Related Issues

For the Trump Administration, Syria-related issues will for the coming years be a central element in bilateral relations with Jordan. From ISIS to Russia to Iran, to Hezbollah, and other Shiite militias, Washington and Amman have some significant interests in Syria. Most notably, the Trump Administration and Jordan share a common interest in the shadow of the de-escalation agreement in the south, in preventing the IRGC, Hezbollah, and other Iranian-backed Shiite militias from deploying along the Jordanian border.

Washington and Amman have cooperated in recent years on kinetic operations on the Syrian side of the border against Sunni Islamist militants. And ever since the pilot Muath Kassasbeh’s F-16 crashed over Raqaa and he was brutally murdered by the Islamic State, the U.S. has been providing the Jordanians with search and rescue support over Syria. In the future, as the threat from ISIS subsides, the bigger challenge for Washington and Amman will be to keep the Iranians out.

Another important Syria matter for the Trump Administration and Jordan will be the Russians. Amman has, according to most accounts, established a good working relationship with Moscow focused on Syria, having established a de-confliction cell in Jordan, where Russian, American, and Jordanian officials discuss ongoing military operations, as well as a center to monitor violations of the de-escalation zone in south Syria.

While Washington seems comfortable with Amman’s newfound working relationship with Moscow, there are some other potential issues related to Russian-Jordanian ties that could eventually become problematic. For example, Jordan is considering construction of two 1000-megawatt power plants—an initiative that the U.S. opposes. Notwithstanding the U.S. position, Amman may move forward, with Moscow’s assistance. These reactors, which will cost around $10 billion, are, at least according to the current plan, slated to be built and partially owned (49.9 percent) by Russia.

Jerusalem

Jordan's Hashemite rulers -- direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad -- have long had a special relationship with Jerusalem, Islam's third-holiest site. Prior to arriving in Jordan in the 1920s, they were the custodians of Mecca and Medina. In 1950, Jordan annexed the West Bank and declared sovereignty over Jerusalem. Today, the Hashemites continue to derive some of their legitimacy from their guardianship of Islamic sites in Jerusalem. Indeed, the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty specifies that "Israel respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in the Muslim Holy Shrines in Jerusalem" and mandates that Israel give "high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines" during final-status talks with Palestinians.

While the Trump Administration has yet to act, Amman is concerned that the administration's proposed move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem move will touch off mass protests in the kingdom. On January 5, 2016 Minister of Media Affairs Mohammad Momani called the proposal a "redline" and warned of "catastrophic" consequences should it be implemented. And on January 22, the king discussed the issue with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in Amman, where they "agreed to take a number of measures if the embassy is relocated," according to the Palestine News and Information Agency (WAFA).
Another Jerusalem potential point of contention between Washington and Amman relates to Israel. The U.S. has an abiding interest in the continued good relationship between Israel and Jordan, two of Washington’s most important allies in the region. To be sure, the 1994 peace treaty between the states remains solid—as does the strategic relationship between the neighboring states—but periodically the states go through some difficult times, even minor diplomatic crises.

One example of this kind of crises related to Israel’s handling of Temple Mount, or Haram al Sharif, violence. In early 2017, after Israeli security guards were stabbed at Al Aqsa mosque, Israel installed metal detectors at the entrance to the site, sparking anti-Israel demonstrations among Palestinians in the West Bank and across the river in the kingdom, where a majority of the population is of Palestinian origin. Because of the monarchy’s special role in Jerusalem and the kingdom’s demographics, security events in the holy city are extremely sensitive for the Palace. And these incidents cause headaches for Jordan, problems for Jordanian-Israeli relations, and hence, for the U.S.

More recently, on July 23, 2016 an Israeli security guard shot and killed two Jordanians, including one innocent man, in the Israeli Embassy compound in Amman. In the aftermath of this incident, tensions between Israel and Jordan spiked, leading to perhaps the most serious bilateral crisis since 1997, when Israel attempted to assassinate former Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in the kingdom. Despite the guard's diplomatic immunity, Jordan initially refused to let him leave the kingdom until an investigation was complete but eventually relented and the entire embassy staff departed. A day later in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly embraced the guard, a meeting the Jordanian Foreign Minister described as "a disgrace."

Subsequently, Jordan's King Abdullah paid condolence calls to the families of both the innocent victim and the attacker. The Palace also leaked the full name of the guard to the local press, forcing him to flee his home in Israel out of safety concerns. In a statement four days after the shooting, King Abdullah said that Israel's handling of the embassy affair -- and the still unresolved investigation into a March 2014 killing of a Jordanian judge at an Israeli border crossing -- would "have a direct impact on our relations." At present, Jordan says it will not allow the Israeli Embassy in Amman to reopen until the guard is put on trial.
No doubt, Washington is intervening to get the relationship back on track. A further deterioration of this critical relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbor would not be in the interest of Jordan, Israel, or Washington.

Conclusion

In 2017, the three-year memorandum of understanding on U.S. foreign assistance to Jordan expires. The agreement, signed on February 3, 2015, stipulated baseline U.S. military and economic funding for the kingdom of $1 billion a year. Including plus-ups and supplemental funding, this reached almost $1.7 billion in 2016. It was widely rumored that King Abdullah would ask the Trump Administration for a new MOU, increasing the baseline funding the $2 billion per year. But consistent with the Administration’s efforts to cut State Department spending across the board, the 2018 budget request even reduced Jordan’s funding. Indeed, the Administration requested a 21 percent decrease in military and 22 percent reduction in economic support.

Notwithstanding the Administration’s budget requests, Congress will likely ensure that U.S. funding to the kingdom will remain at its current levels. Based on the environment in Washington, however, it appears that Jordan has, at least for the time being, shelved requests for additional U.S. assistance.

Financial issues aside, however, U.S.-Jordanian relations in the first year of the Trump Administration represent business as usual. Jordan remains a key ally of Washington in a troubled region, and this continues to be reflected in the most important aspects of the bilateral relationship. And it is all but certain that this dynamic will persist throughout the Trump Administration.