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Jordanians question timing, messages of top military brass

The Dec. 30 BBC interview with Lt. Gen. Mahmoud Freihat, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs­ of­ Staff, raised eyebrows in Amman and prompted local commentators to speculate about the purpose and meaning of Freihat’s statements.
AMMAN, JORDAN- NOVEMBER 7: Jordan's King Abdullah II is welcomed by the chairman of the joint chiefs staff Mahmoud Freihat, upon his arrival for the State opening of the Parliament on November 7, 2016, in Amman, Jordan. King Abdullah addressed the recently elected 18th Jordanian Lower House of Parliament with the appointed Higher House of the Senate with the attendence of royal family members and the government. ( Photo by Jordan Pix/ Getty Images)

Senior Jordanian military officials traditionally keep a low public profile and almost never make political statements or give in-depth military assessments of local or regional issues, especially to the media. So it was unusual, and unexpected, for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs­ of­ Staff, Lt. Gen. Mahmoud Freihat, to give an exclusive 16-minute interview to BBC Arabic Dec. 30. The precedent was a remarkable incident in itself, but it was the content of the rare interview that raised eyebrows in Amman and prompted local commentators to speculate about the purpose and meaning of Freihat’s statements.

The interview came in the wake of the terrorist attack in the southern city of Karak Dec. 18, resulting in 10 civilian and security deaths, and public complaints that the government had failed to provide consistent information about the home-grown terror cell that was uncovered by accident. The interview was also released following the fall of eastern Aleppo in Syria Dec. 16, and the evacuation of rebel fighters there to their stronghold in Idlib.

Some of the points that Freihat had made in the interview are listed below:

  • The Karak terror cell had a large cache of arms and explosives, and it was probably planning for a major attack against civilian or military targets during Christmas celebrations in the kingdom.
  • Jordan is worried about the existence of Islamic State (IS) sleeper cells in two refugee camps near the Jordanian border with Syria, and is trying to relocate them further away from the border.
  • The number of Jordanians fighting with IS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) is limited and may not exceed 300 members.
  • Jordan remains an active member of the international coalition fighting IS and continues to carry out air sorties, and there are military coordination cells with Syria and Iraq.
  • Jordan is concerned about the so-called Khalid Ibn al-Walid Army, which has pledged allegiance to IS, and which is located in the Yarmouk River basin and in some areas that are only 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) from the Jordanian border. It has heavy weapons including tanks and anti-aircraft guns and is a clear and present danger for Jordan.
  • Jordan has trained some elements in the Syrian opposition, namely the Tribes Army (made up of local tribes in the southern Syrian Badia region bordering the kingdom and part of the New Syria Army), to fight IS terrorists and not the Syrian regime; Jordan is coordinating with some elements in the Syrian opposition.
  • Jordan cannot open its borders with Syria because there are no regular Syrian regime troops on the other side, and also because the road to Damascus is not safe. But these borders will open once the Syrian army takes control of the border crossings.
  • Jordan continues to maintain diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime, and liaison officers on both sides remain in touch.
  • The most probable military scenario for the Syrian regime following the fall of eastern Aleppo is to focus its efforts on the south, including Wadi Barada and eastern Ghouta all the way to Daraa (on the Jordanian border).
  • There are worries that once IS loses Mosul, it will head toward Raqqa and from there to southern Syria and the Jordanian border.
  • Jordan is concerned about the behavior of the Popular Mobilization Units (the Iran-backed, Shiite-led militias in Iraq) and their advance toward Tal Afar (on the border with Syria), and from there into the heart of Syrian territory and all the way to Lebanon.

No Jordanian official, except for King Abdullah, has ever made such a detailed assessment of the military and geopolitical situation in light of what is happening in Syria and Iraq. Freihat’s revelations raised questions about the timing of these statements and whether they were intended to deliver political messages to the Syrian regime.

On Jan. 1, political commentator Maher Abu Tair wrote in Addustour daily that Freihat sent three assurances to Damascus: that Jordan played no role against the regime, that Jordan will not open the border unless the Syrian army takes control and that diplomatic relations were never severed. But Abu Tair stressed that Freihat was determined about Jordan’s intentions to confront threats from terrorists in the Yarmouk River basin, which could include pre-emptive strikes inside Syria.

The following day, political commentator Mohammad Abu Rumman wrote in Al-Ghad daily that Freihat’s warning about the realization of a “land route” connecting Iran to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria underlines the “strategic depth of Jordan’s reading of future regional developments.” He also questioned Freihat’s estimates of the number of Jordanians fighting in Syria and said other sources put that figure “at many multiples of just 300.”

Bassam Badarin, a correspondent for the London-based Al-Quds daily, wrote Jan. 4 that the question of why a senior military official, and not a high-level government figure, would come out and talk in detail “about an imminent IS threat to Jordan and an Iranian land belt extending to Lebanon at this point in time remains an unanswered question.” He said that Freihat’s statements on Iran firmly place Jordan in the anti-Tehran trench in line with Saudi Arabia.

Retired Jordanian general and military analyst Fayez al-Duwairi told Al-Monitor that Freihat’s statements carried messages to domestic and foreign audiences alike. According to Duwairi, internally, they underlined the challenge that IS terrorists pose to Jordan either in the form of a homegrown threat or as an external danger lurking close to the kingdom’s borders. He said, “The main internal message is that Jordan is in the crosshairs of IS terrorists; but the external message points to Iran’s emerging threat to mainly Sunni states, and this is something that King Abdullah had warned us of many years back when he talked about the Shiite Crescent.”

Political commentator Omar Kulab agreed that Freihat’s interview was intended to deliver messages to many recipients. He told Al-Monitor that the choice of a high-ranking military official, rather than a senior government official, was meant to give credibility to his statements. “There was a dual message: one conciliatory to the Syrian regime and the other to the Gulf states. And the bottom line is that there was no contradiction in the Jordanian position — that while appeasing Damascus, Amman remained wary of Iran’s regional ambitions,” Kulab said.

He added, “A message of assurance to the Jordanian public [in the aftermath of the Karak incident] would be better received locally from the head of the armed forces, which enjoys trust and support.”

In the absence of government follow-up to Freihat’s statements and the significance of the BBC interview, Jordanians continue to ask questions about its purpose, timing and the messages it was supposed to carry. There had been no reaction from Damascus in spite of the conciliatory tones of the statements. For the time being, a response to Freihat’s overtures is yet to come.