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Jordan Dimensions of the Military Threat
Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
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    Figure 13. Comparison of Force Strengths in the Middle East, 1988

    Source: Based on information from International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance, 1988-1989, London, 1988, 98-116.

    As of mid-1989, the Jordan River valley, forming the boundary zone with Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank (see Glossary), had been quiet for nearly two decades. In 1970 Hussein's army had begun its drive against the PLO militia that was using Jordan as a base for attacks on Israeli positions in the West Bank (see The Palestinian Factor , this ch.). The Israeli leadership has acknowledged that pacification of this border has been the result of Jordanian measures taken to prevent PLO terrorism. Jordan was not a declared belligerent in 1973 when Egypt and Syria simultaneously attacked Israel; however, Jordan did commit armored units to support Syrian defenders on the Golan Heights during the last stages of the war in actions confined to Syrian territory (see The Military Heritage , this ch.). Jordan did not join Syria and the PLO in contesting Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

    Although Israel throughout the 1980s exercised restraint in its military conduct with respect to Jordan, the destructive potential of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) continued to preoccupy the Jordanian command. Despite the long period intervening since raids and bombardments by Israel in retaliation for attacks by PLO guerrillas, the ferocity of Israel's earlier punitive actions--most of the victims being Jordanians with no links to the PLO--had left a permanent impression of Israeli belligerence and hostility. Jordan was also conscious of the sentiment in Israel that favored solving the West Bank Palestinian problem by ejecting all Arabs from the area and sending them to Jordan. Any attempt to execute such a plan would inevitably require military intimidation or the direct application of Israel's military superiority.

    In the event of renewed hostilities between Israel and Syria, it was also possible that Israel would try to outflank Syrian positions in the Golan Heights area by swinging south into Jordan. Such an action would present its own problems, including a difficult river crossing. During the 1973 conflict, neither Israel nor Syria violated Jordanian territorial integrity in spite of Jordan's efforts to reinforce the Syrian defenses.

    Jordan was also obliged to take account of Syrian military power. The aggressive Damascus regime had frequently been at odds politically with Hussein until an easing of bilateral relations began in late 1985. Syrian tank units had crossed into Jordan in 1970 to aid the Palestinian militia defying the government. The Syrians had massed three divisions and more than 800 tanks on the Jordanian border in 1980 in a dispute over military training camps in Jordan for opponents of the Syrian regime. Only pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia, together with Hussein's promise to limit anti-Syrian activity inside the kingdom, caused Damascus to back down. Syrian-sponsored terrorist activity beginning in 1983 was intended to intimidate Hussein in his efforts to get the peace process under way between the PLO and Israel.

    Like Israel's, Syria's military establishment vastly outmatched that at Hussein's command. Syria had a quantitative personnel advantage over Jordan by a ratio of four to one, its tank and artillery inventory exceeded Jordan's by a ratio of four to one, and it had four times as many combat aircraft, most of them of more advanced design. A corresponding disparity of scale existed between the Jordanian and Israeli armed forces. The normal personnel strength of the IDF was about 60 percent larger than that of Jordan's armed forces, but Israel could rapidly expand its personnel by mobilizing well-trained reserve units (see fig. 13).

    Jordan also had common borders with Saudi Arabia and Iraq and was separated from Egypt only by a narrow strip of Israeli territory in the Negev Desert. The 1988 cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq War left Iraq with a large number of experienced fighting units. As a revolutionary Arab state opposed to settlement with Israel, Iraq had in the past been perceived as a potential threat by the Amman government. Relations between Jordan and Iraq had been good, however, throughout the 1980s. Jordan viewed Iraq as a buffer against the radical Islamic fundamentalism expounded by Iran's leaders and provided tangible support to the Iraqi war effort. Saudi Arabia, with an armed establishment about the size of Jordan's but with no combat experience, was not regarded as a military rival. To the contrary, the Saudi government had been the primary financial source for equipment acquisitions by the Jordanian forces. During the 1960s, Egypt's militant Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdul Nasser had tried to destabilize Hussein's rule. Since that time, however, Egypt had not been a source of concern militarily to Jordan. Under the political conditions prevailing in the late 1980s, Egypt was perceived as a peaceful neighbor against which no special security precautions were required. Rather, the Jordanian-Egyptian rapprochement had progressed so far that joint military exercises were held by the two countries in 1985.

    Further evidence of Jordan's intention to increase its cooperation with other Arab states were the meetings in Amman on February 12, 1989, and in Baghdad on February 16, 1989, that resulted in the founding of an Arab economic association. King Hussein took the lead in creating this organization, to be known as the Arab Cooperation Council, consisting of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen). The permanent secretariat of the body, which is patterned on the European Economic Community and the Gulf Cooperation Council, will probably be located in Amman.

    Except for the Jordan River valley separating Jordan from the West Bank, no major terrain features present a barrier to an invading army. Jordan shares a 375-kilometer border with Syria, and the Syrian frontier is only 60 kilometers from Amman. The Yarmuk River, which forms the western part of the boundary between the two countries, falls into a deep gorge to Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee), but farther east a number of major roads link the two countries across undulating terrain with no natural obstacles. The city of Irbid and the air base at Al Mafraq are fewer than twenty kilometers from the border, vulnerable to surprise attack or artillery bombardment. The 742-kilometer border with Saudi Arabia and the 134-kilometer border with Iraq are in open desert areas to the south and east.

    The bulk of Jordan's population and its most productive agriculture have concentrated in the northwestern corner of the country, an area only about 60 kilometers wide and 160 kilometers long. In the event of conflict, Amman and other cities would have only a few minutes' warning against air attack from either Syrian or Israeli planes based nearby. Israeli ground forces advancing from the West Bank would face a major terrain obstacle in the form of the escarpment about 800 to 1,200 meters above the floor of the Jordan River valley. Although a number of surfaced roads lead to the top of it, a well-entrenched defending force could make the operation very costly. In the end, however, Israel's superior air power, possibly combined with a helicopter assault on key high points, would almost certainly succeed in dislodging the Jordanians blocking an advance up the main routes to the central plateau. Israel also would have the option of seizing Jordan's sole port of Al Aqabah in the south, although its army would face long and exposed supply lines in a subsequent drive north toward Amman.

    In the event of aggression by one of Jordan's stronger neighbors, the modest forces at Hussein's command might be obliged to confine resistance to the vital northern upland region, holding the heights above the East Bank (see Glossary) or defending the likely invasion routes from Syria. The army combat units and most of the air bases were concentrated in the northwest. Jordan's vulnerability, particularly its limited defense against sustained air strikes, would make it difficult for even a well-trained and highly motivated army to prevail for long against a strong invading force.

    The overall national defense strategy was to maintain forces that could give a good account of themselves, even when faced by superior attackers. A potential aggressor might thereby be deterred, realizing that a move against Jordan would be a costly venture. Moreover, a strong defensive posture by Jordan would oblige any aggressor to precede its attack by a mobilization in expectation of major conflict, thus obviating the danger of a surprise takeover. If an invasion nevertheless occurred, the Jordanian strategy would be to conduct a stubborn delaying action to allow time for pressure to be brought to bear by Jordan's friends and the international community for abandonment of the aggression.

    Data as of December 1989

    NOTE: The information regarding Jordan on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Jordan Dimensions of the Military Threat information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Jordan Dimensions of the Military Threat should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.

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Revised 10-Nov-04
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