Concerns over the presence of militants in the camp on the Jordanian-Syrian border, home to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, have grown.
The Rukban camp, a strip of demilitarised zone trapped near the joint Syria-Iraq-Jordan border, is home to up to 80,000 refugees. Once a remote desert crossing point, Rukban has in the past three years grown from a temporary settlement into a permanent camp that is proving increasingly difficult to control. It has turned into a de facto ‘no-go area’ for armed forces and relief organisations amid concerns that it is harbouring a growing number of militants.
The camp has been virtually cut off from the rest of the country since an ISIS-claimed car bombing at the Rukban crossing in June last year. This prompted Jordan to declare the border a military zone, closing it to civilians as well as humanitarian aid.
Rukban presents a number of humanitarian and security concerns for NGOs, Jordanian authorities, and allied forces in the area. Blocked humanitarian assistance means that water infrastructure, medical support, and sanitation facilities are barely existent. Meanwhile, illegal trade, extortion, and trafficking are flourishing. Refugees have to pay traders for water, bribes at checkpoints, and high prices for food. Concerns over staff safety prevent humanitarian access to the camp. Scarce aid shipments coordinated by the UN’s World Food Program reach the refugees by crane. Aid distribution, movement in and out of the camp, and other tasks are carried out by UN contractors vetted by Jordan’s army and community leaders. According to reports, it has also, controversially, been done by private logistics contractors affiliated with militias that have offererd paid armed protection for food distribution.
In the absence of security forces or aid workers to protect and administer the camp, Syrian tribal and rebel groups have filled the vacuum, controlling medical and food aid distribution. Militant and rebel factions opposed to the Syrian regime and ISIS police the camp. They include Jaish Ahrar al-Ashair, the Army of Free Tribes, a militia believed to report to an influential Syrian Bedouin businessman. The crossing point is operated by Free Syrian Army (FSA) affiliate Jaish Usud al-Sharqiya, the Lions of the East, which receives funding and equipment from the US-led military operations centre (MOC) in Amman.
The degree of cooperation between those groups and Jordan’s army is unclear. Fears of militant infiltration into the camp remain. Jordan estimates that Rukban could be home to some 4,000 militants – and heavy weaponry, including RPGs and anti-aircraft weapons.
Since last June’s attack, at least eight suicide and car bombings have been perpetrated by ISIS in and around the camp. The most recent, on 13 and 15 May 2017, saw two blasts hit a restaurant and market, killing six people. Fighters from a rebel group are believed to have been the targets. The presence of such groups has resulted in growing tensions and inter-tribal violence over resources, in particular water. It has also increased the camp’s vulnerability to terrorists. Most recently, on 3 June three armed men on motorcycles from Syria tried to attack border guards near the camp.
Rukban has not seen any attacks since. However, on 11 June, Jordanian border guards reported three incidents and infiltration attempts via the al-Tanf crossing bordering Syria, Jordan, and Iran in the space of 72 hours. This was five days after US-led coalition strikes – the third in three weeks – against pro-regime forces that had entered the so-called “deconfliction zone” around al-Tanf, home to the British and US forward operating base where the coalition trains rebels against ISIS. It is not clear whether those who tried to cross into Jordan were ISIS militants, other groups, or pro-regime forces. Either way, this was further indication of instability in the area.
The ISIS threat
As ISIS loses territory in Iraq and Syria, there are concerns that the US-led operation, in which Jordan is the lead Arab country, will shift the threat to other areas. Jordan is a natural southern route for fighters fleeing Mosul, Raqqa, or Deir ez-Zor province. Foreign fighters also pose a risk. More than 2,000 Jordanians are believed to have joined ISIS in Syria.
Active networks are known to operate across Jordan. Besides external threats, there are aggravating internal factors. High unemployment, trafficking in poor urban areas, marginalisation, and a worsening economic situation, exacerbated by the growing number of Iraqi and Syrian refugees who now represent - together with Palestinian refugees - a third of the kingdom’s population, all contribute to ISIS’ appeal. The country has been hit by several major security incidents and attacks since late 2015. ISIS attacked Kerak Castle in December 2016, killing 10 people, including seven security forces, two civilians, and a Canadian tourist. This attack was the first against civilians in Jordan since a 2006 assault on the Roman amphitheatre in Amman.
In April, ISIS released a video calling for violence in Jordan. As the group’s fighters move south, there are concerns Rukban could become a battlefield for attacks against Syrian rebel groups – and US and British Special Forces. Compounding those fears, the Khalid Ibn al-Walid Army, an alliance of three ISIS-affiliated groups from Deraa, near Jordan’s border, has offered strong resistance to rebels. The group is believed to be increasingly active south of the Golan Heights and in the desert expanses that straddle Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. Deraa is also home to former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (previously Jabhat al-Nusra and now part of the Tahrir al-Sham coalition).
Faced with what it perceives as an imminent threat on its borders, Jordan is unlikely to move refugees in Rukban into the country. Inaction will not help. Fragile borders and further military engagement with the US and US-backed Syrian rebels will continue to elevate Jordan’s profile as a terrorist target. As more resources and troops are deployed to Jordan’s borders, the government will face challenges to contain militant ambitions for territorial expansion outside of the core conflict zone in Syria.
The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics.