Syria and the real demographic threat

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Last week marked the 17th anniversary of Jordan’s King Abdullah’s coronation after the death of his father, King Hussein.


Abdullah’s ascension to the monarchy was unanticipated. His uncle Hassan was his father’s long-serving crown prince and was expected to inherit the throne. Hussein made the change in succession from his deathbed.


Today it is hard to believe that Abdullah will have the power to decide who succeeds him.

For generations, the largest looming threat to Jordan was its Palestinian majority. Although estimates of the size of Jordan’s Palestinian population vary widely, some placing it at just over 50 percent, and other estimates claiming that Palestinians made up 70% of the overall population, all credible demographic studies have agreed that most Jordanians are Palestinians.

It was due to fear of his Palestinian citizenry that for the past decade or so, Abdullah has sought to disenfranchise them. Beginning around 2004, Abdullah began throwing Palestinians out of the Jordanian armed forces. He also began canceling their citizenship.

According to a 2010 report by Human Rights Watch, between 2004 and 2008, the kingdom revoked the citizenship of several thousand Palestinian Jordanians and hundreds of thousands were considered at risk of losing their citizenship in an arbitrary process.

Today, concerns that Palestinians may assert their rights as the majority and so threaten the kingdom have given way to even greater fears. Demographic changes in Jordan in recent years have been so enormous that Palestinians may be the least of Abdullah’s worries. Indeed, it is far from clear that they are still the majority of the people in Jordan.

Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, between 750,000 and a million Iraqis entered Jordan. Current data are not clear regarding how many of those Iraqis remain in Jordan today.
But whatever their number, they have been eclipsed by the Syrians.

Today, the official UN count of Syrian refugees stands at 635,000. That official number is probably less than half the actual number of Syrians in Jordan which is assessed at between 1.1 million and 1.6 million – or some 13% of the population.

To get a sense of just how large the population changes have been it is worth looking at historic data.
According to the World Bank, the population of Jordan stood at 5.29 million in 2004. In 2013 it was 6.46 million.


In 2015 it was 9.53 million. The massive influx has strained Jordan’s public resources to the breaking point.

According to King Abdullah, a quarter of the kingdom’s budget last year went to supporting the refugees. According to a 2014 report by Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Siftung, the aggregate cost of the Syrian presence in Jordan outstripped its economic benefits by around $2 billion.

A Chatham House report on the Syrian refugees in Jordan warned that in the coming years, the Syrian refugee flow could have a profound impact on the stability of the kingdom. Until 2013, the regime’s main concern was the radicalization of Beduin tribes in large part due to the rise of al-Qaida and Islamic State (ISIS or IS) among Beduin tribes in the Sinai and the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt.


Although those concerns remain prevalent today, they being eclipsed by the destabilizing impact of Syrian refugees in the north of the country. According to the September 2015 Chatham House report, although there appears to be little public support for regime change in Jordan, “If the economic situation fails to improve across the country, and resentment of refugees continues to fuel other national grievances, protests against government policies could escalate in the coming five to 10 years.”

In Lebanon, the refugee crisis is even more profound. Since the start of the war in Syria, more than a million Syrians have entered Lebanon as refugees.

Today they comprise 25% of the population of Lebanon. Three quarters of the refugees are Sunnis. Their presence in Lebanon has upended the demographic balance between Sunnis, Shi’ites and Christians. While Hezbollah has deployed thousands of forces to Syria to prevent the Iranian-sponsored Assad regime from falling to Sunni opposition forces, the Sunni refugees in Lebanon have been fighting Hezbollah forces throughout the country.

Many of these Sunnis are affiliated with Salafist groups like IS and the al-Qaida- aligned al-Nusra Front.
It is far from clear what the medium- and short-term implications of the refugee flows will be for either Jordan or for Lebanon. But there can be no doubt that they will have profound long-term ramifications.



Neither Jordan nor Lebanon have a clear unifying national ethos. Before the Syrians began streaming over the border, the ruling Hashemites comprised somewhere around 20% of the overall population. The backbone of the regime was the Beduin tribes, which, as noted, have undergone a process of radicalization in recent years.



Jordan’s relations with Israel have already been negatively impacted by this radicalization. When King Abdullah appointed Walid Obeidat to serve as ambassador to Israel in 2012, his tribe – the largest in Jordan – disowned him. Experts on Jordan warned that the tribe’s action indicated that relations between the regime and the tribes were at an all-time low. Although previous ambassadorial appointments had been criticized, the Obeidat tribe’s reaction to their son’s appointment to Israel was unprecedented. According to Chatham House, given the current social instability in the kingdom, it is unclear that Abdullah’s regime will be able to implement its gas deal with Israel.

Both Israel and the US view the survival of the Hashemite monarchy as a key national interest. And both have made clear over the years that they will deploy forces to defend the Hashemite regime from Islamist forces that have in recent years pledged to overthrow it. In 2014 for instance, the Obama administration held a confidential Senate briefing regarding threats to the regime’s survival. A senator who attended the briefing told The Daily Beast, “Jordan could not repel a full assault from ISIS on its own at this point,” and would ask Israel and the US to defend it.

At the same time, it is hard to believe that the threats to the regime, particularly the demographic threat posed by the massive transfer of population from Syria to Jordan, are likely to subside in the near future. Indeed, Russia’s entry into the war on the side of the Iranian-sponsored Assad regime will likely cause the number of Syrians seeking refuge in neighboring states to rise. The same goes for Lebanon.

The demographic transformations that Jordan and Lebanon are currently undergoing require Israel to reassess our regional position and strategic options to preserve and defend the country in the coming years. This is particularly the case for everything related to demographic threat assessments.

Unfortunately, despite the collapse of Syria and Iraq, and despite the rising threats to Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, for the most part, Israeli analysts continue to base their view of Israel’s options moving forward – particularly in relation to the Palestinians – on a regional map that is no longer relevant.

Sunday the Labor Party endorsed party leader Isaac Herzog’s plan to unilaterally withdraw from much of Judea and Samaria. Given the regional population changes, the notion that Israel can transfer more land along its eastern flank to the chronically unstable, and hostile Palestinian Authority today is reckless at best. For all their weaknesses, both the Jordanian and Lebanese regimes are far stronger than the PA.


And they have been unable to stop the refugee flows across their borders.

It is impossible to imagine that a Palestinian state on the western side of the Jordan River could block refugee flows from the east, particularly when the Palestinians demand the free immigration of millions of ethnic Palestinians from Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

The demographic transformation of Jordan and Lebanon in recent years shows that the greatest demographic threat to the remaining states in the region is not natural growth, but refugees from states that have collapsed. The integration of Palestinians into Israel is far less dangerous to the long-term survivability of Israel than the influx of millions of refugees from neighboring states into a Palestinian state on the western side of the Jordan River.

In the hopes of keeping the Syrians displaced by the war in their country from turning to Europe for refuge, last week Western countries held a donor conference for Syria in London.

Speaking at the conference King Abdullah warned that Jordan is at a “boiling point,” and told the West to commit to donating $1.6b. over the next three years before the “dam bursts.”

Unfortunately, the dam is already leaking. And if Israel doesn’t want to be flooded as well, the time has come to understand that old thinking about demography – and just about everything else – is no longer relevant.


Originally published in The Jerusalem Post. 

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