MAFRAQ, Jordan — Hundreds of Syrian refugees slip across the border near here each night with little more than harrowing tales and occasionally grave wounds. For this resource-poor kingdom, the newcomers are fueling new economic burdens and worries that the war next door might spread beyond its own frontiers.
Throughout much of the conflict in Syria, Jordan has hewed toward neutrality to avoid antagonizing a powerful neighbor that has long been an important trading partner and transit route for Jordanian goods. But the accelerating refugee flow and protracted war have complicated that stance, and the kingdom is raising alarm about the potential for regional instability and is increasingly siding with the Syrian regime’s opponents.
Jordan opened its first formal camp for Syrian refugees two weeks ago after more than 140,000 Syrians fleeing the conflict had already entered. The kingdom is pleading for international aid as rows of tents mushroom on a sunbaked expanse of tawny sand near this northern city.
Not far away, at a site closed to reporters, a separate camp houses deserters from Syrian security forces. Fifty miles south, in the capital of Amman, Jordan is sheltering the recently defected former Syrian prime minister — one of the starkest signs yet of Jordan’s shifting stance toward a regime with which it has maintained diplomatic relations.
The defector, Riyad Hijab, told a news conference in Amman on Tuesday that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is “collapsing” and that rebels are gaining ground.
Jordan’s public embrace of refugees and defectors is potentially risky for a nation that is a relative oasis of stability in a volatile region, a trait that has made it a magnet for waves of refugees from previous wars. Jordanian officials and analysts say there is rising concern about Syrian retaliation or pursuit of opposition activists inside Jordan. Officials here are also worried about internal tensions as Jordan seeks to appease a low-level protest movement calling for democratic reforms.
In recent months, Jordan’s King Abdullah II has called publicly for Assad to step down, and his government has quietly increased non-lethal assistance to opposition forces. Jordanian officials say a major concern is the possibility that Syria could fracture into tribal or ethnic enclaves. That could tug on the allegiances of tribal groups straddling Syria’s borders with Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. It could also create openings for al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations to dominate certain areas, they say.
In an interview broadcast last week, Abdullah described such a fracturing as a “worst-case scenario” for Jordan and raised the specter of a spread of ethnic fighting across the region, a fear Obama administration officials share.
“That means that everyone starts land-grabbing,” he told CBS News. “If Syria then implodes on itself, that would create problems that would take decades for us to come back from.”
Jordan is also worried about the fate of Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons. Western diplomats have said that Abdullah was among the earliest backers of the recent creation of detailed contingency plans by the United States and several of its Middle Eastern allies to secure chemical arms with Special Operations troops in the event that militants seize parts of Syria.
“Today the regime has control” of its chemical weapons, Samih al-Maaytah, Jordan’s information minister, said in an interview. “The question is, after the fall, would they hand them to Hezbollah” — the Lebanese Shiite militant group — “or keep them in an Alawite country, or would they become part of the mess?”
The growing tide of Syrian refugees poses the biggest immediate challenge. There have been accounts in Jordan of border violence, and Jordanian officials say Syrian forces in several cases have shot refugees as they crossed into Jordan — including, recently, a 6-year-old boy who later died. Sometimes refugees have been shot when they were well inside Jordanian territory. Abdullah told CBS that Jordanians have occasionally fired back at the Syrians. He did not elaborate.
Jordan has had an open-door policy for Syrian refugees since they began trickling in last year. About 300 to 1,000 people now cross the border nightly, most with the help of Syrian rebels.
Trade and family ties span the frontier, and the majority have easily found shelter with relatives or friends in Jordanian cities. Syrian activists have mostly praise for Jordanian hospitality.
Until recently, Jordan appeared reluctant to open a refugee camp. But officials and analysts said the swelling population is taxing the country’s weak supplies of water, fuel and power, as well as its job market. Mounting security concerns require stricter vetting of migrants and their movements, they said.