Zuhdi Janbek is a prominent Jordanian statesman, politician and public figure. He held different high-level positions in the Jordanian hierarchy throughout his outstanding career, among them the post of the President of Circassian Charity Association in Jordan 2017 – 2020. Mr. Janbek is a prominent public security expert with 33 years of work. He used his unique experience serving for eight years as the head of investigation team in the International Criminal Tribunal for war crimes in Rwanda and its neighboring countries. General Janbek was a member of the Council of National Policy Working Group of the NPC Royal Hashemite Court, a strategic expert in the field of counter-terrorism and counter extremist ideology. Mr. Janbek held the principal and the membership positions of the delegations of Jordan in the Arab and international forums and events.
I met Mr. Janber accidentally in Tbilisi thanks to a kind introduction of Zaza Kandelaki, Georgia’s most capable Ambassador to Jordan. General Janbek and I had a long and quiet, I would say, casual conversation at the “Veriko” restaurant. We discussed a lot of issues, explored many sensitive topics and tackled some unanswered dilemmas, among them the history of the Circassian Diaspora in Jordan, lingering conflicts in the Caucasus and the Middle East and many other complex and dire problems.
I enjoyed very much that wise and sober exchange over many issues of global affairs, especially those that are disturbing specifically our own countries, Jordan and Georgia. We discussed also what may unify Jordan’s and Georgia’s strategic agenda, their values and functions in the world, their perspectives to become a small pads for intersection of different strategic vectors, and thus making Georgia and Jordan a bridge between the neighboring regions and areas with the aim to lessen confrontational stance that engulfed a wider area around us and try to transform vast area from confrontational into a modestly cooperative setting.
I need to acknowledge that I learned a lot from this conversation. I adapted the most significant fragments of my chat with General Janbek into notes for my diary. In a while, particularly in the light of developments in Afghanistan, which dramatically changed the global balances and acutely reopened existing neurotic chords in different parts of our immediate neighborhood, I reread these notes again and decided to offer them exclusively to DFWatch with a humble hope that the readers would find them informative and forward-thinking, as an idea that we live in a “small world” where security, stability, sovereignty and independence are interconnected, intertwined and interdependent and as in Chaos Theory one flop of wings of any political or security “butterfly” somewhere in Jordan or Georgia may impact negatively our broader neighborhoods and far beyond them. That’s why we need to know each other better – our history, our cultural heritage, our strategic, economic and political resources and potential and how to use them properly for our mutual advantages.
Here, I should to add that the opinions expressed in that interview are of the respondent’s own. Naturally, some answers and judgments made by General Janbek are arguable but still it’s worthy to listen diverse and reversing opinions and assessments to make right conclusions and decisions.
Tedo Japaridze: Let’s start with Jordan. What’s the function of that country in the Middle Eastern equation? Obviously, Jordan is not only a “special geography” where many strategic vectors shoot in, intersect and pass through. Jordan is a microcosm of historic, confessional, cultural legacies, a so-called “small pad” where all those dynamics are interconnected and intertwined, impacting a strong way the neighborhood and far beyond it. How does Jordan cope to balance this web of interests and heritages?
Zuhdi Janbek: To answer that question, I need to go back into the history, as without its proper understanding it won’t be easy to understand the Middle Eastern equations and challenges. It may be a long excurse but a necessary one to grasp the essence and the context.
For a country that had and still has the Russian, Iranian, American, Turkish, Hezbollah, and ISIS troops on its eastern and northern borders, Israeli troops on the west, and the Yemini-Saudi war a little bit further to the south, we have no choice but to be the stabilizers and walk the ropes, not for fun, nor for survival but to lead the region to peace.
Let me start answering this question by talking about the most recent developments in Jordan’s role in the area. Despite the attempts in defining Jordan’s responsibilities during the era of former US President Donald Trump, the kingdom was and still is a major player in the region and internationally, based on its geopolitical position and its proximity to major crisis centers – Syrian, Iraqi, Yemini, and the most important of which is the Palestinian cause.
The Kingdom’s Arab and regional role has been restored, especially after the signing of a joint security agreement with US and the transfer of American forces and equipment from Qatar to Jordan, as well as their withdrawal from Afghanistan and the victory of Taliban after US departure. Recently, the Syrian crisis, Jordan’s relations with Israel, and the issue of peace according to the two-state solution (Palestinian and Israeli) are Jordan’s main concerns. Things are not as simple as it might look. In order to understand where we stand today, and why we stick to our strategic decisions, we should take a deep look into the history of Jordan.
The importance of geographic location:
Jordan as a terrain goes way back in history as holy land as it is today. It has been home to some of mankind’s earliest settlements and villages, and relics of many of the world’s great civilizations can still be seen today. As the crossroads of the Middle East, the lands of Jordan and Palestine have served as a strategic nexus connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe. Thus, since the dawn of civilization, Jordan’s geography has given it an important role to play for trade and communications, connecting east and west, north, and south. Jordan continues to play this role today.
As for modern history, much of the trauma and upheaval that the peoples of the Middle East suffered during the twentieth century can be traced back to the events surrounding the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany and the Axis. It was an opportunity for the Arabs to liberate the Arab lands, depending on the honor of the British officials who promised their support for a United Kingdom of the Arab territories, so Sharif Hussein bin Ali, Prince of Mecca, and King of the Arabs (and great-grandfather of King Abdullah II) launched the Great Arab Revolt. Then the victors reneged on their promises to the Arabs of a united Arab state, and this was the beginning of the birth of the kingdom of international balances namely Transjordan, which later became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
The geopolitical factor:
The political aspirations of the Arabs were not fulfilled due to the conflicting promises that the British made to their wartime allies. The first came in 1915 in an exchange of ten letters between Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, and Sharif Hussein. Essentially, Britain pledged, in what became known as the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, to support Arab independence if Sharif Hussein’s forces revolted against the Ottoman Empire.
This agreement excluded three regions: the Turkish states of Basra and Baghdad, the states of Iskenderun and Mersin, and most importantly, parts of Great Syria located to the west of the regions of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo. The British later claimed they meant Palestine by this area: for obvious reasons the Zionists took the same position. The Arabs claimed that Lebanon, not Palestine, is located to the west of Damascus and the other mentioned areas.
The interests of the colonial powers took precedence over the promises made to the Arabs. Accepting the principle of Arab independence enshrined in the Hussein McMahon Correspondence, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, signed by Britain, France, and Russia in 1916, divided the region into permanent colonial spheres of influence. And this how Russia got foothold in the area later. To further complicate matters, in 1917 British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour issued a letter to a prominent British Jew, Lord Rothschild, pledging Britain’s commitment and support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The letter, known as the Balfour Declaration, calls for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” From the beginning, Prince Abdullah realized that real stability in Transjordan could only be achieved by establishing legitimacy through representative institutions.
The buffer zone factor:
On May 14, 1948, the British ended their Mandate of Palestine, and the Jews immediately declared the independence of the State of Israel. The Soviet Union was the first country to recognize Israel, followed immediately by the United States. The tragedy of Palestine was born; Jordan has the longest borders with Israel, which gave the country more importance as a buffer zone between strong Iraq and Saudi Arabia on the east and Israel on the west. A more important role started by the beginning of the cold war when Russians strengthened their presence in the area by moving to Syria making Jordan another buffer zone between Socialist Syria in the north representing communist Soviet interests in the north and the monarch of Saudi Arabia in the south representing the US interests.
Attention shifted from the Arab – Israeli conflict to the Arab Gulf in 1980 when the war between Iraq and Iran broke out. Throughout the eight-year war, Jordan, along with the United States, France, and the Arab Gulf states, supported Iraq against the threat of Iranian revolutionary expansion. Russia was the spearhead in supporting Iraq.Jordan added to its important location and the supply line from the Jordanian port of Aqaba on the Red Sea to Iraq has acquired great strategic importance.
Peace is the constant, and war is the exception:
Peace was the real legacy of late King Hussein who ruled Jordan for 47 years, visiting his website you will find it written in nice, decorated Arabic: “Jordan, Kingdom of peace”. Late king did not only write this, but he also sincerely believed in it.King Abdullah II followed his father’s footsteps in moderation rather than extremism in all Jordan’s foreign and internal affairs.
We did not want the war in 1948 with Israel. But when we were forced to defend Palestine, we fought as if it was our own war. Same thing was repeated in 1967, neither we were ready, nor we wanted the war, but we were dragged to it only to lose West Bank, which was annexed to Jordan in 1950. We did not hesitate to defend the Syrian front in 1973 war, and we sent our army there to help Syria at the same time we kept our longest borders with Israel away from that war. We advised Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait while advising the US not to attack Iraq. We did not allow any party in the Syrian conflict to use Jordan to attack Syria, but we did not close the borders for refugees and humanitarian assistance. In 1994 the Jordan-Israel peace treaty was signed, and we made it the interest of all parties in the region and in the world to safeguard the stability of Jordan.
No one wants to be the King:
Before, during, and after the Arab Spring we had and still have opposition, inside and outside Jordan. But no one wants to be the king of Jordan, nor do they want to replace the monarchy. This was achieved because of the internal cohesion of the royal family and its insistence on being the impartial ruling and reference for all colors of the Jordanian spectrum. Therefore, the Jordanian opposition disagrees with the king, but it does not disagree on his symbolic status and the necessity of his presence as ruler of the country. This position is further enforced in the Jordanians’ feelings towards the king, because he is a descendant of the Messenger of God, Muhammad, peace, and blessings be upon him. The Hashemite family’s tolerance of the opposition had the greatest impact in promoting the values of reconciliation and tolerance among Jordanians, and history has not recorded any case of execution of any opponent.
Therefore, the involvement of Prince Hamzah (the king’s brother from his father) in an attempt to destabilize Jordan’s internal stability several months ago was not a source of threat to the king’s position in power as much as it was a source of pain for him because it was a precedent that occurred for the first time in the history of the ruling royal family in Jordan. As for the involvement of some regional parties in this failed attempt, Jordan was able to turn this challenge into a source of strength rather than a weakness and used it cleverly to rearrange its international relations to serve its interests without creating new enemies.
Tedo Japaridze: A follow-up question. The West rarely admits the role of the Middle East as a destination rather than merely a source of refugees: Greeks from Asia Minor in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, Circassians and Armenians across Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel. Circassians are credited with founding modern Amman and traditionally make up guard of the Jordanian Royal Family. How did that special relationship emerge?
Zuhdi Janbek: In 1864 the Russian-Circassian War, which had lasted for nearly a hundred years, ended. The end of that war marked the most heinous crime of genocide against a people in the nineteenth century, perpetrated by the Russian Tsarism against the Circassian people, which claimed the lives of more than half a million Circassians, while a similar number were subjected to a forced displacement to the Balkan regions that were ruled by the Ottoman Empire.
After the defeat of the Ottoman armies in the Balkans, the Circassians were relocated for the second time from there to the regions of the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq) away from the borders of the Russian Tsarist state, according to the conditions imposed on the Ottoman Empire at the time.
Exhausted and frustrated at their second defeat by the Russians, in less than a decade, the Circassians arrived in Jordan in the late sixties of the nineteenth century. They immediately engaged in building their first villages in Amman, which later became the capital of the kingdom. Then we expanded to the areas surrounding Amman, and we established the villages of Wadi Al-Seer, Naour, Sweileh, Al-Rusaifa, Zarqa, and Jerash. Amman became a municipality in 1909 and from that year until 1921 the mayors of Amman were Circassians. The same was the case in the Circassian villages mentioned above.
At the end of the First World War, King Abdullah 1st arrived in Amman to make it the capital of the new country, where he found the Circassians who built it and well managed it. Being a force of knights who gained their combat experience from three wars they fought against the Russians and against the Allies. The Circassians did not disappoint the king, so they assigned him guards from the Circassian cavalry to protect him in his place of residence and during his travels, and their work was voluntary without pay.
Thus, the Circassians gained the confidence of the King and became his special guard in their beautiful Circassian costume. Although they obtained 12.5% of the seats in Jordan’s first elected parliament in 1929, they turned to work in the army and police rather than politics. However, the ninth prime minister in Jordan was Circassian, and he formed four governments between 1950 and 1955, and was appointed as Chairman of the Jordanian National Assembly from 1955 to 1977. This royal trust in the Circassians was inherited from the grandfather to the father, to the son, and then to the grandson King Abdullah II. And the matter remained so until this day, as soon as you enter the royal court, you find the Circassian knights with their beautiful custom surrounding the king, protecting him and guarding his private office.
Tedo Japaridze: The Caucasus has often been referred to as “the wider Middle East.” During the war in Syria and Iraq we have seen thousands of people from the Caucasus fighting under the banner of ISIS? To what extend would you say this reflects a failure of the Russian empire? And if you may elaborate abut further: what’s the role and mission of Russia in the Middle East?
To answer this question, we must go back to the Balkan countries in the mid-nineteenth century, where the Caucasians in general and Circassians in particular found their opportunity to take revenge on Tsarist Russia, so they participated in the war against them on the side of the Ottoman Empire.
This was repeated in the Russian-Afghan war in the eighties of last century, where volunteers from the Caucasus participated in defeating the Soviet forces and expelling them from Afghanistan. This is also why you will find the Caucasian combatant battalions volunteering to fight against the Russians wherever Russia intervenes militarily. This happened in Syria, just as it happened in Ukraine.
But things are no longer as simple as they used to be. Today the common interests became in control of international relations instead of lofty values and principles. That is why you find that the Russians today are welcomed in Afghanistan even though they were yesterday’s enemies, and you find the Americans being expelled even though they were yesterday’s friends. Just as this shift from belief in principles to concern for common interests occurs on the Russian side of the equation, it also occurs on the opposite side of them. The Circassians in Syria are a good example of this change in principles, and therefore you find them divided, some of them are fighting with the government on the side of the Russians, while others are fighting with the opposition against the Russians.
A wounded tiger is more dangerous than a hungry one.
The role that Russia plays today in the Middle East are completely different from its previous roles in the region. But with the same old mistakes, it is trying to renew its vital space in a way that is reproduced from the former Soviet Union. The use of force does not make friends, but it increases nearby enemies.It is true that the West erred in its calculations with Russia in both Kosovo and Georgia but this should not bring us back to the Cold War. It is true that the West erred in its calculations with Russia in both Kosovo and Georgia but this should not bring us back to the Cold War.
Tedo Japaridze: As the historical destination of major refugee flows – not least the Palestinian Diaspora – Jordan is a major stakeholder in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Given the sizable population of Palestinians in Jordan, how do you view the impact of the conflict in the identity of Jordan, as a nation-state?
Zuhdi Janbek: This is one of the major Jordanian taboos. Most of the times, opening this subject for discussion would lead to conflict between participants. Why is it so?
According to the latest official population statistics in Jordan, the population of Jordan reached 10.98 million at the end of last July. Of them, 7.48 million Jordanians, the rest are of different nationalities. While the annual population growth rate was 2.36%. Compared to the last census of Jordan’s population, the population has increased by 1.2 million in five years, which means that we are sitting on a demographic bomb that may explode in any moment.
The number of Palestinians in Jordan is 4.4 million, according to official Palestinian statistics, of whom 2.4 million are officially registered refugees with UNRWA, and among them, 396,000 Palestinians are still living in 10 official camps leaving 2 million Jordanian from Palestinian origins.
To show the complexity of the issue, Jordanian statistics confirm that the percentage of Jordanians of Palestinian origin is 35-39% of the total Jordanians. While Palestinian statistics confirm that the percentage of Jordanians of Palestinian origin is 60-63% of Jordanians. While estimates of Arab researchers confirm that their percentage is 45-55% of total Jordanians. One of the Jordanian prime ministers confirmed that the percentage is 43%. The Jordanian Department of Statistics estimates the number of Palestinian refugees (who are not Jordanian) in Jordan to 634,182 in 2015.
Why is it so complicated?
As a result of 1948 war, a group of Palestinian leaders from the West Bank called for King Abdullah to take immediate steps to unite the two banks of the Jordan into a single state under his leadership. On April 11, 1950, elections were held for a new Jordanian parliament in which the Palestinian Arabs of the West Bank were equally represented, and this Parliament unanimously approved a motion to unite the two banks of the Jordan River, constitutionally expanding the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan now included nearly one and a half million people, more than half a million of whom were refugees evicted from Jewish-occupied Palestine. All automatically became citizens of Jordan. The Arab League opposed this plan, and no other Arab government followed Jordan’s lead. By 1964 the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was established.
In the 1967 war Israel occupied a wide swath of Arab land, including what remained of Arab Palestine—the West Bank, including Arab East Jerusalem. As a result of the war, more than 300,000 Palestinian Arabs became refugees and fled to east bank of Jordan. For many of them, this was the second uprooting in less than two decades, having been driven from their original homes in 1948.
And right here the dilemma of Jordan identity was borne. Palestinians of the west bank are Jordanians by law since 1950 because of unity between the 2 banks therefore they are displaced persons in their own country, east Jordanians refused this logic and insisted that Palestinians forced to leave west bank due to Israel military occupation are refugees. To give you a simple answer for your question, the impact of this situation is affecting all aspects of life in Jordan, putting the kingdom freeze situation waiting for the solution to the Palestinian cause.
About a month ago, King Abdullah II formed a royal commission for political reform whose main task is to draft a new election law and a new law for creating political parties. The biggest problem the committee is currently facing is the choice between adopting the principle of equality among all Jordanians, based on a member of parliament representing an equal number of Jordanians, and this is what Jordanians of Palestinian origin demand. Or that the Royal Committee adopt the principle of an equal number of parliament members for each geographic unit regardless of the number of citizens in it, and this is currently applied, where a parliament member represents 65,000 citizens in one of the electoral districts (mostly with a population density of Jordanians of Palestinian origin), while Another member of Parliament represents only 13,000 citizens in another electoral districts with a majority of East Jordanian citizens. And this is the demand of the East Jordanians.
This struggle between the Jordanians of Palestinian origins and the east Jordanians over the identity of the majority in the national assembly does not stop here; it goes way deep to cover many aspects of our lives, with east Jordanians worrying it might affect the identity of the state if they don’t stop it now and here.
Tedo Japaridze: The Circassian Diaspora, like the Armenians, has been striving to secure the recognition of their expulsion from Russia as genocide. More than a century after the events leading to the expulsion of Circassians from the Caucasus, how important is this recognition?
Zuhdi Janbek: The crime of genocide represents a flagrant violation of international law and humanitarian law due to the woes and pain it causes and the intentions it includes to uproot a particular race from its roots and land and wipe it out of existence through killing, displacement, expulsion, child abuse and women’s rape.
The modern era has witnessed the occurrence of tens, if not hundreds, of crimes of genocide in most continents and many countries all over the world.
There is no doubt that recognizing the genocide that the Circassians were subjected to at the hands of the Russian Tsarism will not bring back the victims and martyrs we lost to life, nor will it (the recognition of the genocide) change the tragic and disastrous results caused by the crime of genocide. Therefore, if this confession does not allow and does not pave the way for criminal or civil legal prosecution, it is nothing but a tribute to the victims on the one hand and moral support to the survivors of this crime on the other.
It should be noted here that Georgia was more eager than many Circassians themselves, to recognize the genocide that the Circassians were subjected to at the hands of Tsarist Russia. And being the only state in the world that recognized this genocide deserves more than words of appreciation occasionally, it should motivate not only us, the Circassians, but all activists in the world to work together as a team to follow up on this issue and make this tragedy known to every country in the world.
Tedo Japaridze: Our part of the world, the Wider Black Sea area, has been plagued with different political, ethnic, or confessional clashes still brewing here and there as some hot wars or as some low-intensity conflicts especially, in the so-called “post-Soviet” space but, naturally, not only there. Some powers use those skirmishes as instruments to dominate and control, to keep those conflict-infected countries weaker to influence. What’s the way out of that quagmire? Is there any “win-win” recipe to tackle those problems? What would you, through your rich and long-time engagement dealing with those thorny issues and problems, advise politicians, scholars, the representatives of the civil society?
Zuhdi Janbek: In simple words: if we find ourselves in the middle of that quagmire, we should either dry it out or look for a dry spot and hold on to it to survive. The only better solution for this situation is not getting in that quagmire to begin with.
During my ten years as an investigative team leader at the International Criminal Tribunal for War Crimes in Rwanda, I interviewed thousands of witnesses, many defendants, and hundreds of experts in law and in many other fields. The only conclusion I reached and that did not change with the changing of statements of the witnesses, the change of experts and the change of the accused is the fact that: an ordinary citizen is always the victim.
Whether he/she is playing the role of the perpetrator or the role of the victim, he/she is the victim.
And whether he/she is a murderer or has been killed, attacker or defender, right or wrong: he is the victim.
In the genocide in which hundreds of thousands of the minority Tutsi tribe and the Hutu majority were killed, there were many countries involved, causing, inciting, or benefiting from the crime of genocide alongside those countries and organizations that did notdo what they should have done to stop the tragedy, especially the United Nations. I did not find any of these countries or organizations inside prisons or in the mass graves of the victims. There, in prisons, in front of the courts, and in mass graves, I found an ordinary citizen, the real victim of all these international conspiracies. He/she is the one who was killed in their names and to achieve their goals. He/she is also the one who was killed in their names and to achieve their goals. He/she is also the one who is being held accountable in their names and to achieve their goals. He is always the victim.
In my attempt to answer your very complicated question, I emphasize the necessity of simplifying the issue and returning to its basic roots, which is the citizen.
I think today we need to create networks that connect citizens to each other without going through the channels of states and give them the opportunity to dialogue with each other to reach the magic formula based on the principle of a “win-win” strategy. A network of citizens from all walks of life sharing the same vision of peace and prosperity, forming a powerful regional-citizen based framework to share and exchange expertise and information necessary for political stability and sustainable development. And later, communicate the results of their dialogue to governments backed up with collective pressure to ensure their implementation.
This kind of smart partnership dialogue based on the principles of love of God, love of goodness and love of neighbor may be the way out for the countries of the Wider Black Sea region so that these countries do not turn into firewood that burns until it becomes ashes in the fire flames of the conflict between interests of big countries, and its citizens turns into a pile of corpses in mass graves, or a displaced group of refugees spread over the globe, or a group of prisoners bearing responsibility for the foolish decisions of a group of leaders and politicians.
The fate of Circassians today is a good lesson to learn from for the Wider Black Sea area on both levels: citizens and governments.
I think that the level of governments and states in this region should learn from the story of the three bulls and the lion. The lion was afraid of attacking the three bulls of black, white, and red colors, because of their cohesion and standing together.
The lion’s mind came up with a plan to disperse them.He befriended the bulls and told them he was protecting them.One day, told the black and red that they were all in danger because of the white bull that revealed the location of the herd to hunters at night, and that the security of the herd required getting rid of the white bull. The black and red bulls agreed to the lion’s plan, and the lion ate the white bull when his comrades abandoned him. In the following month, the lion spoke with the red bull and told him that the security of the herd was threatened because the color of the black bull revealed their location to the hunters during the day, and therefore it must be disposed of. The red bull agreed, so the lion ate the black bull. In the third month, the lion came to the red bull and said to him: It is your turn today. The bull finally realized his mistake and replied: “I was killed the moment the white bull was killed.”