AP INTERVIEW: Jordan's king warns of Syrian unrest

Last Updated: Wed, Mar 20, 2013 22:15 hrs

Jordan is struggling under the burden of a half-million refugees from the Syrian civil war — a conflict that King Abdullah II fears could create a regional base for extremists and terrorists who are already "establishing firm footholds in some areas."

In an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press, the 51-year-old monarch also said the regime of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad would not survive the revolt that already has killed an estimated 70,000 Syrians.

"I believe we are past that point, too much destruction, too much blood," Abdullah said.

As for his own country, Abdullah says reforms he has launched in Jordan will lead to a greater democracy and will serve as a model to other Arab states that have been undergoing two years of upheaval that have toppled longstanding leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

He wants Jordan's monarchy to "take a step back," explaining his vision of a new style in which future kings — and possibly himself — will serve as arbitrators between different political factions but still hold sway over foreign and defense policies.

Abdullah said Jordan is spending $550 million annually to host an estimated 500,000 refugees from Syria's civil war — about 9 percent of Jordan's population of 6 million — and most have crossed in the last 12 months.

The government says they have strained the country's meager resources, including health care and education, and forced the budget deficit to a record high of $3 billion last year

The king said humanitarian assistance is direly needed not only for host countries, like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, but also inside Syria, so that "hearts and minds can be won before extremists fill the vacuum left by a failed Syrian state and mass exoduses are prevented."

He said faced with all these threats, Jordan is working on "contingencies to protect our population and borders, in self-defense." He declined to elaborate.

Abdullah warned that the radicalization of Syria, together with the deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, could ignite the entire region.

"Another extremely dangerous scenario is the fragmentation of Syria, which would trigger sectarian conflicts across the region for generations to come," he said.

"And also the huge risk that Syria could become a regional base for extremist and terrorist groups, which we are already seeing establishing firm footholds in some areas," the king added, concerned about "a jihadist state emerging out of the conflict."

Abdullah also cited the worry that chemical weapons could be used in the conflict.

He has previously warned that such weapons could fall into the hands of the militants, who are seeking to establish presence in Syria. From there, they could be used against Syria's neighbors, including Jordan — a strong U.S. ally that signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994.

Nevertheless, Abdullah said he was against any foreign military intervention in Syria, including setting up a safe zone for the refugees inside the country.

He said that if the conflict escalated further, as is widely expected, he could see the number of refugees almost double over the next six to eight months.

He said Jordan continues to exert its utmost "diplomatic efforts to assist in bridging gaps in the international community so that an agreement can be reached on an inclusive political transition that preserves the territorial integrity and unity of Syria."

"For the sake of Syria, the region and the international community, we should all work toward an immediate inclusive transition, where each group in Syrian society feels that it has a stake in the country's future," including Assad's ruling Alawite minority.

On other topics, Abdullah said the start of President Barack Obama's visit to the region opens a "window of opportunity" for restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The tour includes stops in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.

"I see a window of opportunity to restart negotiations on the basis of a two-state solution, which is the only formula," he said.

"First, we have a second-term U.S. president. Second, the historic U.N. vote upgrading the status of Palestine reflected a fresh international will," he said.

He said the Arab Spring uprisings added urgency to resuming the peace process.

"The Arab Spring is first and foremost a cry for dignity, justice and freedom, which only a just and real peace can bring," he said.

Rising energy prices have brought angry protests in Jordan as well — some of them against the monarchy.

In the past two years in Jordan, about a third of the country's 60-year-old constitution has been revised, parliamentary elections have been held and archaic legislation has been revamped to allow for greater public freedoms.

Abdullah created a constitutional court to monitor the application of the law. Other new laws encourage a multiparty system, allow Jordanians to elect mayors and city councils and lift restrictions on rallies and public gatherings.

Still, Abdullah's critics say there has been insufficient to end his monopoly on power. He also faces an old guard of conservatives who fear any reform could undermine their clout.

The largest opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, boycotted the election, saying the legislation favors locally based conservative candidates rather than parties with an ideological base.

Describing the Brotherhood as "an integral part of Jordan's fabric," he said he hoped that "one day soon it will engage in the process and join our own journey toward a united and functioning democracy."

He boasted of Jordan's "peaceful" model of transition into democracy, saying it will bear fruit because it is gradual and "based on pluralism, openness, tolerance and moderation."

Sitting in a meeting room of a newly constructed palace with portraits of his father and other founders of the modern state of Jordan, Abdullah outlined his vision of the monarchy.

He said it will function as a "safety valve of last resort in case of impasses" among Jordan's various political factions.

"The monarchy will take a step back, in line with our reform road map for a party-based parliamentary government system," he added.

The crown will "continue to serve as guarantor of the constitution," Abdullah said, to "ensure that the army, security forces, judiciary and public religious authorities remain neutral, independent, professional, and apolitical. The monarchy will also continue to play a role in vital strategic issues of foreign policy and national security."

Abdullah's reform efforts, however, are still undermined by an inefficient public sector, which is accused of corruption, nepotism and red tape, and services are insufficient for low-income Jordanians.

"The king should feel the pain we go through to get a government document, say a birth certificate or a drivers' license," said Alaa Abu-Saa, 23, an unemployed college graduate. "He should try the chaos and the humiliation we go through at government hospitals."

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