Is Jordan quietly reshaping Trump-era US policy in the Middle East?

Published April 11th, 2017 - 02:00 GMT
Jordan's King Abdullah II speaks during a joint press conference with US President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden at the White House on April 5, 2017 in Washington,DC. (AFP/Nicholas Kamm)
Jordan's King Abdullah II speaks during a joint press conference with US President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden at the White House on April 5, 2017 in Washington,DC. (AFP/Nicholas Kamm)

When President Trump took office in January, little was known about what his administration’s foreign policy for the Middle East would look like – other than blanket support for Netanyahu in Israel, and the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric that helped him get elected.

But at least two major recent events have seen the Trump administration walking back, if not outright reversing stances on issues in the Middle East: The White House backing off on support for new Israeli settlements and the proposal of moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, and the US Tomahawk missile strike on Shayrat airbase following a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun.

What do they have in common? Both came shortly after visits to Washington by Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

It might come as a surprise if Jordan is able to wield such influence on US policy in the Trump era – Jordan’s policy on refugees has been almost diametrically opposed to that of Trump. Up to a third of Jordan’s population is made up of refugees of various nationalities; by contrast, Syrian refugees constitute less than 0.005 percent of the US population. Jordan, already a low-income country, has suffered economically as a result over the last six years.

Earlier this year, it looked like Jordan was pivoting to support Assad as a political reality, and up until last week’s chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, the Trump administration had adopted a much softer line towards Assad, criticizing Obama’s decision to fund “moderate” opposition groups.

Following the US missile strike on Shayrat airbase, Jordan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ayman Safadi came out in support, calling it an “appropriate” response on Twitter. Earlier today after a G7 meeting in Italy, Safadi reiterated Jordan’s support for a political solution in Syria, without overtly taking sides.

But these apparent policy shifts may be more of a balancing act than an indication of decisive action to come, says Osama Al Sharif, a political commentator in Amman. Such a response, he says, “keeps Jordan in the middle and out of the polarization of the conflict… Jordan is walking a tightrope, seeing which way the winds are blowing on a daily basis.”

“There is now also talk of possible military operations in southern Syria,” Al Sharif went on. “The US strike is not a game changer, but it has reset the position of a number of countries.”

Jordan hosting the Arab Summit recently also allowed Jordan to reposition Palestine to take top priority in the summit. While easier said than done, it may have been enough to make the US tone down its more controversial rhetoric on the issue.

But what Jordan lacks in size and wealth compared to other countries in the region, it makes up for in soft power. King Abdullah has drawn praise from both sides of the aisle in US politics, seen as someone able to communicate complex issues soberly and eloquently. It’s possible that Amman has seen the lack of clarity from the Trump administration as an opportunity to shape policy. If that is the case, Jordan working behind the scenes may arguably be better than other Middle Eastern leaders who have been more active participants in the war.

It remains to be seen how a number of issues will shake out - like Trump’s pledge to cut non-military foreign aid – and how they will affect Jordan specifically. But even with the uncertainty that has hovered over the region since Trump took office, it seems the US and Jordan’s “strategic” relationship is here to stay.

Lindsey Leger

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