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Jordanians Split Over the War in Syria

21/03/2014 16:28 GMT | Updated 21/05/2014 10:59 BST

In February 2014, Syrian state media accused Jordan of supporting rebels in southern Syria, aided by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Indeed, the Jordanian government has allegedly played a role in backing the insurgency in Syria. But painting Jordanians as rebel allies with a broad brush would be too simplistic: rather, popular opinion in the Hashemite Kingdom is divided. Many Jordanians do support the insurgency against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but some oppose it and many others have grown skeptical over time, as the spillover from Syria to Jordan increases.

"At the start of the crisis, I think that the majority of [the]population in Jordan was pro-rebels, but . . . [with] time, that majority started decreasing and in my opinion right now the Jordanian population is quite divided," says Nafez, a youth activist and blogger based in Jordan. Nafez sees several reasons for this gradual loss of support: the economic distress caused by reduced trade and lost access to the Syrian market, the large numbers of Syrian refugees, and the extreme sectarianism and fundamentalism of the rebels. He also notes that there are clear tribal and religious differences, with northern tribes and Christian Jordanians often supporting Assad while Jordanians of Palestinian descent are divided on the issue.

Most Jordanians Are Neutral

According to a poll conducted by the Center for Strategic Studies (CSS) at the University of Jordan, 60 percent of the national sample and 72 percent of the opinion leaders surveyed describe their political position toward the crisis in Syria as "neutral." Yet 46 percent of Jordanians are very concerned that violence in Syria will spread to their own country, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center.

The country has no shortage of internal problems to deal with. Threats of civil disobedience are particularly prominent in the southern district of Maan, which has been the scene of tribal clashes on university campuses and where poverty and soaring unemployment have provided an opening for Salafi jihadi groups.

Tribal Opposition

"Jordanians of tribal origins tend to oppose the rebels, as the northern tribes were negatively affected by the crisis," says Nafez. "Southern tribes, who have more affinity and proximity to Saudi Arabia but are smaller in number than the northern tribes, tend to show more support for the opposition."

The influx of Syrian refugees is particularly worrisome to some tribal communities, with residents in the northern town of Mafraq erecting a mock Jordanian refugee camp to protest escalating rents and prices.

The Refugee Crisis

But the lack of enthusiasm for receiving refugees isn't limited to certain areas or tribes only. According to the CSS survey, 71 percent of Jordanians believe the country should not take in any more Syrians, and 58 percent say that refugees in their own neighborhood have caused a decline in public services. Over half those surveyed believe that the country is moving in the wrong direction as a result of the increasing flow of refugees, the worsening fiscal deficit, and the failure to reform.

Many now feel that Jordan must isolate itself from the Syrian crisis. According to the CSS figures, 75 percent support the idea of a buffer zone within Syria to host refugees, but few seem to favor direct Jordanian involvement. Thirty-eight percent of Jordanians argue that such a buffer zone should be under United Nations jurisdiction, while 21 percent say the Arab League should be in charge. Only 16 percent think that it should be under Jordanian control.

A Divided Palestinian Community

"In my opinion a significant number Jordanians of Palestinian origin tend to side with the rebels," says Nafez, the Jordanian activist. "Those are usually the religious ones, who are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, while the ones affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Fatah tend to show less support for the rebels."

Palestinians make up more than half of Jordan's population. While some are strongly opposed to Assad, the war's terrible consequences for Palestinians in Syria could erode support for the uprising. Commenting on the catastrophic destruction in the Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees in Damascus, the PLO-backed West Bank government's labor minister, Ahmed Majdalani--who was born in Damascus--has blamed "terrorists," rather than Syrian authorities, for holding Palestinian refugees hostage.

Christians Worried by Islamism

Jordan is an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country, but Christians make up 6 percent of the population, roughly similar to their numbers in Syria. Many Christians in both countries see Assad as a protector of minorities and fear the Islamist-led rebel movement. At a meeting in Jordan last April, Christian leaders discussed the challenges facing Arab Christians, with Jordan's King Abdullah II urging interfaith harmony and stating that "the protection of the rights of Christians is a duty rather than a favor." Naturally, many minorities will cling to such reassurances from their government in a time of crisis, in Syria as well as in Jordan.

"You should see this to understand why Christians support the Syrian government," an Armenian Christian friend from Jordan writes as he sends me a photo of the headquarters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a radical jihadi opposition group in Syria. It is what used to be the al-Shuhada Armenian Orthodox Church in Raqqa, in northern Syria, which the ISIL took over five months ago, along with the Sayida al-Bishara Catholic Church. The group is now also demanding that Christians pay a levy in gold. Raqqa was the first and only provincial capital to fall completely under rebel control, in March last year, and today it is ruled under a radical interpretation of sharia law.

That is exactly what Jordanian Christians fear a rebel victory in Syria would lead to--and it has begun to worry an increasing number of Jordanian Muslims, too.

Nikita Malik is a researcher from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. She is currently conducting fieldwork in Jordan. Follow her work on http://nikitamalik.com or @nixmalik on Twitter.

This article was orginally published in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Click here to read the article.