Jordan's sphere of influence
Jordan's King Abdullah talking to Suzanne Kelly
January 18th, 2012
11:32 PM ET

Jordan's sphere of influence

By CNN's Suzanne Kelly

Editor's note: Fresh from a meeting with President Obama, Jordan's King Abdullah sat down with Suzanne Kelly to talk about the Arab Spring and Jordan's influence in the region and its efforts toward negotiating a lasting Middle East peace. Watch for more stories from Suzanne's interview with the King later this week.

For years, Jordan has been quietly waging its own war of influence in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and now more prominently, in stepping up to fill a role in restarting stalled peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

Jordan's King Abdullah met with President Barack Obama at the White House this week and his message when it came to the talks was, "We've got this. We'll let you know when we need you."

"At this stage, and I said this to the president yesterday, as I did when I first met him three years ago, it's up to us to do the heavy lifting," said King Abdullah. "We still have a lot of homework to do and that's our responsibility. We can't always have to fall back on the United States to do everything."

The king acknowledged that any deal is still a long way off. After three meetings, there is little indication that things will move quickly, if at all, but as King Abdullah sees it, at least the two sides are talking.

"We all know that we've been there before. I believe that both leaders feel that they need a way out and to ignore these issues as a problem in 2012 would be a disaster for all of us, and I think both leaders realize that," said the king. "How successful we're going to be in the next couple weeks is anybody's guess, but I'm just keeping my fingers crossed. Better that they are talking to each other than not talking at all."

Jordan's role in stepping up to negotiate talks comes as little surprise. In fact, this country of just over 6 million has been waging its own war of influence for years in some of the region's most volatile places.

Jordan is seen as a moderating force in the region. A steadfast ally of the United States in the war on terror, many of the country's other efforts to influence outcomes in the region exist just below the radar. Take Afghanistan as an example.

Two years ago, Jordan began sending imams and combat-trained women into the villages of Afghanistan. Their mission was to preach moderate Islam to Afghan women. The king, as it turns out, believes women were the key to changing the mindset of Afghan villagers who might otherwise embrace the Taliban or al Qaeda.

"The people who I think really hold the power in the village, those that are going to make an impact, are the women, and nobody's talking to them," the king said. "I had a really good battalion commander who is now in charge of a special forces brigade who said, 'Look, send me imams and send me combat women and I'll make a difference.'"

So he did, and the experiment was deemed so successful that today the Jordanians are making efforts to replicate the practice with U.S. combat teams.

A difficult neighborhood

But exercising one's influence can be a tall order for a small country in the midst of a volatile neighborhood. Just look at Jordan's neighbors: Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.

In Syria, Arab League monitors have failed to stop the killing of those who are rising up against President Bashar al-Assad. King Abdullah was the first Arab leader to call for the Syrian president to step down and the monarch still isn't overly hopeful that change will come anytime soon.

"I don't see Syria going through many changes. I think what you're seeing in Syria today, you will continue to see for a while longer," he said. "It's a very complicated puzzle and there is no simple solution. If you can imagine Iraq being a simple solution to move Iraq into the light a couple of years ago, and it's different in Libya, so it has everybody stumped and I don't think anybody has a clear answer on what to do about Syria."

To the west, there is Israel and tensions with Iran over its nuclear program. While Israeli officials have played down the idea of taking military action against Iran in recent days, the king is opting for a "big picture" solution, which, of course, he believes ultimately leads back to the peace process.

"The saber-rattling from both sides we have heard on a very regular basis over the past couple of years,"he said. "My answer to military options on Iran: If you solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem, then Iran is no longer a military problem for you because what are their positions against Israel? The future of the Palestinians and the future of Jerusalem. If we solve that with the peace problem, then the Iranian threat is taken off the table. I think that's a much easier and cheaper way of solving the problem."

And when it comes to Iran and Syria, sometimes where one sits makes all the difference in what one sees. Take, for example, shared concerns about Iranian influence in Iraq as the United States pulls out troops.

"I think if you were in an Iranian's shoes and you were looking at the region and where they would like to play an influence, what's obviously happening in Syria is going to affect them negatively, because they feel that they're losing an ally if something happens with the regime or, as it is today, because of the internal dimensions of Syria, it's not as an effective partner for the Iranians. So naturally I think the Iranians will be looking towards Iraq and having a stronger influence there."

A common threat of terror

Jordan is undoubtedly a critical ally in U.S. intelligence efforts in the region, particularly when it comes to the hunt for al Qaeda operatives.

In the years since 9/11, there have been quiet suspicions that Jordan was hosting secret CIA prisons used for the detention and interrogation of terrorist suspects. While the CIA would never acknowledge such an arrangement existed, the closeness of the relationship between the two countries' intelligence agencies managed largely to exist outside the public view. But then Khost happened.

On December 30, 2009, a Jordanian doctor and known al Qaeda sympathizer thought to be "turned" by the General Intelligence Department (Jordan's intelligence service) arrived at a CIA forward operating base in Khost, Afghanistan. He had been delivered to the CIA by the GID, but instead of bringing promised information on the whereabouts of the then-number two figure in al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the double agent detonated a vest of explosives strapped to his chest.

Seven CIA officers and contractors were killed, as was the bomber's Jordanian handler, a high-ranking intelligence officer who happened to be a cousin to King Abdullah.

Jordan has been leery of publicizing the nature of its intelligence relationship with the United States, and for good reason. A large number of Jordan's citizens harbor anti-American sentiment, sometimes a sentiment that is more policy-driven, according to the king. Nonetheless, as a result of its relationship with the United States, Jordan has also, at times, found itself on the receiving end of al Qaeda's fury.

A series of hotel bombings in the capital, Amman, in 2005 killed dozens. The prime suspect was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq, and the man who had been sentenced to death in absentia by a Jordanian court for the earlier killing of an American diplomat. (Within a year of the Amman bombings, death also came for al-Zarqawi in the form of a U.S.-led bombing on an al Qaeda safe house in Baquba, Iraq.)

Jordan's military inclinations can be seen at the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center, a $200 million counterterrorism training facility led by a retired U.S. major general. It is virtual one-stop shopping for special operators in the Arab world, with experts training on everything from crowd control to how to effectively use the latest technology in hot-pursuit exercises.

The idea to launch the center was one that the king, who is a former special operations man himself, admits was a bit selfish.
"I was commander of special operations in Jordan, so I immediately saw the tremendous possibility of an advanced training facility for my country. And because the Jordanian army is so well-respected in the Middle East and slightly beyond, a lot of people in our region come to train in Jordan anyway, so having a first class center made a lot of sense.

"And nobody predicted at that point that you'd have Afghanistan and, to an extent, Iraq."

Putting those skills to good use in places suffering from instability is something that other leaders in the Middle East have echoed. The leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and even Qatar have expressed interest in forming an Arab Rapid Reaction force to be deployed into areas of turmoil.

But not everyone believes the Arab world is ready for this model of military cooperation.

"It would be ideal if we could," the king said. "Unfortunately, I think it comes down to politics. But if you look at what NATO has managed to be able to do and what the Europeans have done, we should be able to do the same thing.

"I mean, take it to a smaller extent; when Libya happened, Jordan, the UAE and Qatar came together as part of an Arab force. It was mainly aircraft to operate alongside NATO, so mentalities are changing, but it's always a good thing when we look at regional deployment capabilities and international ones."

Yet another of the ambitious efforts of a small, but determined Middle East nation.

CNN's Pam Benson and Lindsey Knight contributed to this report.

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