Lieutenant-General Mahmoud Freihat, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Jordanian military, said that the Rukban and Hadallat refugee camps near the Jordanian border, were controlled by ISIS. According to Freihat, however, "tangible progress" had been made in the fight against ISIS, and he said that he was "optimistic that by the end of 2017, ISIS will be in its final stages." Freihat, who was speaking in an in-depth interview on BBC Arabic on December 31, discussed other challenges facing Jordan, including the danger posed by the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Iraq, which, he said, started in Diyala, on the Iranian border, now controls the vital airport area of Tal Afar, and strives to "push on until they reach Lebanon, through Syrian soil."
Interviewer: To what extent is the return of Jordanian Jihadists from Syria and Iraq a matter of concern for the Jordanian authorities?
Lieutenant-General Mahmoud Freihat: The number of [Jordanian] fighters in Syria is very limited.
Interviewer: How many, according to your estimate?
Lieutenant-General Mahmoud Freihat: We know of no more than 300.
Interviewer: 300 in ISIS?
Lieutenant-General Mahmoud Freihat: In ISIS and Jabhat Fath Al-Sham [JFS], formerly known as Jabhat Al-Nusra.
Interviewer: What about Iraq?
Lieutenant-General Mahmoud Freihat: There are very few. Most are in Syria, in the ranks of ISIS and Jabhat Fath Al-Sham.
The danger is expected to come from the Rukban and Hadallat refugee camps, because there is a large number of refugees in these two camps - about 100,000. Most of them arrived there from areas controlled by ISIS. It still has sleeper cells within these refugee camps, which serve as bases for the launching of attacks against the Jordanian border police.
The number of [Syrian] refugees in Jordan is 1.6 million out of a population of 10 million. Only 600,000 of them are registered with the UNHCR. As I've said, in the Rukban and Hadallat camps there are 100,000 refugees. ISIS has sleeper cells there. In fact, ISIS controls these two camps. We used to maintain open borders with Syria, but recently closed them, as a precaution against the terror attacks launched by ISIS from these camps.
We are trying to move the Rukban camp - voluntarily, not by coercion - to an area 4-5 kilometers from the Jordanian border, in order to thwart terror attacks of ISIS.
The danger is that after ISIS is fought out of Mosul, they will turn to Al-Raqqah and Deir Ezzor, and from there, to the Jordanian border, to the Rukban and Hadallat refugee camps. The battle for Al-Raqqah is a done deal too. Al-Raqqah is approached from the north, by the SDF and the Turks. The only hope [of the ISIS fighters] will be to turn toward the Jordanian border, especially to the Syrian desert, and from there to the Rukban and Hadallat camps. This poses a danger to the Jordanian border, but Allah be praised, we are completely prepared to face this anticipated threat.
The Khalid ibn Al-Walid Army is active in the Yarmouk basin area. This organization used to be part of the opposition, but later adopted the terrorist ideology of ISIS. This organization is active in villages close to our border - one kilometer or less. It has capabilities. It has tanks, armored personnel carriers, anti-aircraft weapons, and machine guns. These weapons might target our bases, but we treat the organization with the utmost caution, and we maintain intelligence cooperation. This is beyond the scope of the international coalition. But we are vigilant and are completely aware that the Khalid ibn Al-Walid Army poses an imminent danger to us.
There are still contacts between [Syria and Jordan] through liaison officers. We also have contacts with the Syrian opposition. Obviously, the Khalid ibn Al-Walid Army is at odds with the Syrian opposition. They are in a state of war. We coordinate with the Syrian opposition through the international coalition.
Interviewer: But with the regime, with the Damascus government - the channels are still open...
Lieutenant-General Mahmoud Freihat: They are open through the liaison officers.
Interviewer: Can we expect the opening of the border crossings any time soon?
Lieutenant-General Mahmoud Freihat: I think it would be very difficult to open the crossings right now, because JFS still has a presence on the road to Damascus, for example, and there are ISIS members in Bir Al-Qassab. This would be very dangerous for the transportation, for the trucks. But if sometime in the future, Daraa is taken under control, and the main crossings in the Daraa and Nassib areas are opened, this would pave the way for the resumption of transportation and trade.
Interviewer: You mean that if the Syrian army takes over Daraa or expels Jabhat Al-Nusra from there, it will be possible to open the border crossings?
Lieutenant-General Mahmoud Freihat: Yes. The main problem is that on our northern and eastern borders, there are no regular military forces on the other side. This increases the burden on our military, because we have to cover both sides. There are no regular military forces on the other side. The border crossings cannot be reopened unless the Syrian military controls the other side.
We are concerned about the conduct of the Popular Mobilization Units [in Iraq]. It started in Diyala, on the Iranian border, moved to Baqubah, from there to Tal Afar, and now it controls the Tal Afar environs - the airport area, which is a vital area. It strives to go up north as well and to reach the Syrian border. The Aleppo region is now controlled by the Syrian army, so it would be easy for the PMU to reach... If they are blocked in northern Iraq, by the efforts of the Kurdish and opposition forces, they will push on until they reach Lebanon, through Syrian soil.
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, we have not operated against the Syrian regime. We still have relations with the regime. Our borders with Syria are still open. The diplomatic relations with Syria and Iraq have not been severed. But our goal is to fight terrorism, wherever it may be. We are part of the international coalition and the United Nations in the fight against terrorism. This is our duty. Indeed, we have provided some training to certain factions of the Syrian opposition, and especially the tribal army.
According to our military estimates, ISIS has lost some 60% of its territory in Iraq, and was pushed back to its last bastion, Mosul. In Syria, it has lost some 35% of the territory that was under its control. In addition, it has lost 25% of its manpower, and about 50% of its top echelon - its planners and commanders. This is tangible progress [in the fight against ISIS]. I am optimistic that by the end of 2017, ISIS will be in the final stages.