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Jordan’s king: Tough talk as war rages nearby

Jordan’s king: Tough talk as war rages nearby
Jordanian King Abdullah II, right, and his son Crown Prince Hussein, second from right, attend a military graduation ceremony Sunday in Karak, Jordan.
(Jordanian Royal Palace handout / European Pressphoto Agency)

AMMAN, Jordan — Amid escalating concern about spillover effects of the war in neighboring Syria, Jordan’s King Abdullah II has warned that his kingdom is able “at any moment” to protect its national interests.

Addressing a group of cadets in a graduation ceremony at Mutah Military Academy on Sunday, the king, in full battle dress, made only a single mention of Syria, but the conflict next door was a major subtext.

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“If the world does not mobilize or help us in the issue [of Syria] as it should, or if this matter forms a danger to our country, we are able at any moment to take measures that will protect our land and the interests of our people,” said Abdullah, a key regional ally of the United States.

The speech came as Jordan was taking part in “Eager Lion,” a 12-day military exercise that has brought 4,500 U.S. military personnel as well as 3,500 soldiers from 17 other countries to the kingdom.

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Despite the annual nature of the exercise, which has been held at the same time of year since 2011, the deployment of Patriot missile batteries, F-16 and F-18 fighters, and Marine units is widely seen here as a thinly veiled threat against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The fighter jets, along with the Patriot batteries — which can shoot down missiles and aircraft — could be deployed to create a “no-fly” zone in southern Syria. That move would be a strategic blow for Assad’s forces, which have recently regained the initiative on the battlefield in a series of victories throughout Syria.

Washington has not formally thrown its support behind a “no-fly” zone, though the option is being studied, officials have said.

The U.S.–led exercises, which Russian officials have described as “provocative,” are taking place as U.S. and Russian officials are backing Syrian peace talks and the as-yet unscheduled “Geneva 2" conference, named after a United Nations-backed Syrian peace road map that was agreed upon during an international summit in the Swiss city a year ago. Yet with a fractured Syrian opposition insisting on Assad’s removal from office, and his government buoyed by its military’s recent battlefield successes, there has been little progress on finalizing peace negotiations.

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Analysts viewed Abdullah’s speech, widely publicized here, as a means to prepare the Jordanian public for all possible outcomes, including a possible Western-led intervention in Syria, a “no-fly” zone across the border or a shutdown of the 233-mile long Jordanian-Syrian frontier.

The king made no mention of the military exercises, the influx of military hardware or the recent shift in U.S. policy toward arming the Syrian rebels. An analyst said the omission was deliberate.

“The king did not want to implicate himself in specifics,” said Maher abu Teyr, a political analyst in Amman. “Instead he prepared the ground for all the scenarios that may arise.”

Jordan has become home to more than 500,000 Syrian refugees and has struggled to deal with the burden of this population explosion on its resources, including water and electricity.

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Abdullah is also facing an increasingly hostile internal environment, with many Jordanians, especially extremist Islamic elements known as Salafists, seeking to cross into Syria and join rebels in the sectarian-fueled conflict that has engulfed Jordan’s northern neighbor.

Last week witnessed the formation of the Brigade of Jordanian Mujahedin No. 1, a militant faction registering the names of volunteers who wish to fight with Syrian rebels, according to postings on the group’s Facebook page.

Jordanian authorities have cracked down on Syrian-bound jihadists, a fact that did not escape the attention of the new group’s founder, who stated “we no longer fear our traitor regimes.”

Officials here are concerned that the growing cadres of extremists in neighboring Syria could also launch attacks against the Jordanian state, a longtime adversary of Al Qaeda-linked groups and other militants.

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