A joint military exercise between Jordan and the US sparked a frenzy of speculation about an imminent American, British and Jordanian military intervention inside Syria to stem the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.
The annual exercise, Eager Lion, was kicked off on Sunday by US and Jordanian troops with the participation of more than 20 nations. It is in its seventh year and is led by forces from US Central Command responsible for the Middle East region.
This year’s exercise, however, comes amid local and regional press reports suggesting a link between the timing of the military exercise and a possible US-led ground intervention in Syria.
But according to Jordanian analysts, sending Jordanian ground forces inside Syria would have dire consequences for Jordan’s stability and national security. It would be wise for Jordan, argues retired General Mousa al-Odwan, to keep a defensive-offensive posture on the Syrian borders.
“We should not intervene in the Syrian conflict unless there is a clear and present terrorist threat to our national security,” said Odwan, a former commander of Jordan’s Special Forces and former deputy chief of staff of Jordan’s armed forces.
Odwan, who is in favour of using special forces in a pre-emptive attack capacity inside Syria to neutralise “terrorist” threats, downplayed any connection between the Eager Lion exercise and the Syrian conflict, arguing that it was important for Jordanian armed forces to gain exposure to foreign militaries and train with them.
Since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011, Jordan has been part of the US strategy towards Syria, which has focused on keeping the conflict as a low-intensity war to prevent it from spilling over into neighbouring countries. Jordan is also a member of a US-led alliance to defeat ISIL, using its own air force to bomb targets inside Iraq.
Jordan has agreed to host hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.
Political analyst Adnan Abu Odeh pointed out that the Jordanian public had misunderstood media reports that gave the impression that something was about to happen on the Jordan-Syria borders.
“Jordanians linked the timing of the Eager Lion exercise with King Abdullah’s interview in The Washington Post last month during which he said that Jordan will defend itself if attacked by terrorists coming from the Syrian territory,” said Abu Odeh, who was Chief of Royal Court during the reign of King Hussein.
On Sunday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem was quoted in the official Syrian news agency warning Jordan that any of its troops found inside Syrian territory without prior coordination with the Syrian government would be dealt with as hostile forces. “If the Jordanian forces entered without coordination with the Syrian government they will be considered as hostile forces.”
Jordan’s official policy towards Syria, however, is in favour of “peaceful resolution” to the Syrian conflict.
During a meeting with Jordanian journalists in Amman late April, King Abdullah II stressed Jordan’s commitment to a peaceful end to war in Syria while keeping Jordan’s military in a defensive posture.
The king also stressed that Jordan was ready to deal with any threats coming from the Syrian side of the border. “We will not allow the developments in Syria to pose threats to Jordan. We are continuing with our policy of deep defence without the need to have the Jordanian army involved inside the Syrian territories.”
Commenting on Moallem’s warning to Jordan, Jordanian political commentator Khaled al-Majali told Al Jazeera that he understands the Syrian position as “logical” and “within the Syrian government rights”.
Jordan is incapable of and should not be fighting a long, protracted foreign civil war on behalf of the Americans or the Russians.
“Any government is within its mandate to oppose the presence of foreign troops inside its territories without a request or coordination with it.” Majali, who like many Jordanians is against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, opposed any Jordanian intervention inside Syria because it would have dire consequences for Jordan’s stability and national security.
“Jordan should never send any forces to fight inside Syria because this will end up wrecking Jordan’s military establishment. Moreover, Jordan is incapable of and should not be fighting a long, protracted foreign civil war on behalf of the Americans or the Russians,” he said.
Majali said that any ground troops’ intervention in Syria would not be popular with Jordanians. “Jordanian citizens will not support any policy that requires the sending of our troops to Syria. This isn’t as if the Jordanian army will be marching off to liberate Jerusalem,” he added.
US Major-General Bill Hickman, deputy commanding officer for the American army in the region, said this year’s Eager Lion exercise – the seventh so far – is “the largest and most complex to date”.
The highlight of this year’s war games, he said, will be that “for the first time ever a global strike mission will be conducted by two US Air Force B-1B bomber aircraft” – a long-range multi-mission bomber.
A statement by the Jordanian army said troops from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Gulf region – including from Britain, Japan, Kenya and Saudi Arabia – are taking part in the exercise, which runs through May 18. About 6,000 troops from Jordan and the US took part in last year’s exercise, a joint operation first launched in 2011.
Jordan is a key partner in the US-led coalition battling ISIL fighters in Syria and Iraq.
Follow Ali Younes on twitter @ali_reports