Patrolling the Perimeter
A Jordanian artillery commander finds a new calling as head of his country’s border guards
Jordanian Brig. Gen. Hussein Rashid Al-Zyoud spent decades as an artillery officer, but the real barrage began when he assumed his position in 2012 as commander of the country’s Border Guard Forces.
More than 500,000 Syrians have crossed into Jordan, fleeing violence and disorder in the civil-war-wracked country that runs along Jordan’s 378-kilometer northern border.
On the days he’s not personally visiting border posts near Mafraq, Jabir and Irbid, the banks of closed-circuit video monitors in Al-Zyoud’s office near the capital of Amman scarcely let him forget his duties. Panning, zooming, tracking: Cameras keep a watchful eye on the Syrian border, covering those desert and mountain passageways sometimes missed by the watchtowers.
“Every time we think we have received the last of the night’s crossings, we get calls that thousands more are on the way,” Al-Zyoud says, noting that three-quarters of the refugees are women and children. “It has become a 24-hour cycle.”
Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Mu’tah University, Jordan; master’s from the National Defense College, Indonesia
Former positions: Director of Royal Artillery Corps, chief of planning and training for the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea, chief of staff for Jordan’s Northern Command
Languages: Arabic, English, Indonesian
Family: Married with six children, including a son who is a captain in the Jordan Armed Forces
When the international community focuses on the humanitarian crisis roiling the Syrian-Jordanian border, the attention is generally on refugee camps such as Za’tri, a vast tent city shimmering over an expanse of desert in northern Jordan. What’s sometimes lost in the coverage is the toil of escorting masses of displaced people from the border to the collection points. That’s the job of Al-Zyoud’s Border Guard Forces.
It’s a process often beset by hitches and glitches. Buses generously supplied by international donors lack luggage racks so that vehicles designed for 50 can hold only 35 once refugees have piled belongings on the seats. Roads became so impassible during the unusually rainy winter of 2012-13 that armored cars were conscripted to pull buses from the muck. Necessities as basic as blood pressure cuffs have fallen into short supply, complicating care for an estimated 30,000 refugees who had arrived with illnesses and injuries, by the summer of 2013.
By midyear 2013, the crisis had consumed nearly all of Al-Zyoud’s border-guard budget, a monetary allotment that was supposed to have lasted a full year.
“International agencies think these refugees move by magic wand from the border to the camps,” Gen. Al-Zyoud says. “This is the missing link for me: moving them from the border to Za’tri.”
Although the Jordanian-Syrian border is the source of his greatest challenges, the general is equally responsible for the country’s less turbulent eastern, southern and western borders, each helpfully color-coded on the map and patrolled by a different Army brigade. That’s 1,163 kilometers in all.
Amid all the population displacement, a persistent worry for the Jordan Armed Forces are the opportunists using the Syrian crisis to attempt to shuttle weapons and drugs across the border, including terrorists and extremists. Families and tribes who have lived on the border for centuries possess knowledge of smugglers’ crossings that many new recruits lack. That knowledge deficit puts the border battalions at an initial disadvantage.
Nevertheless, the general insists certain qualities make for a superior border guard. Three of them are patriotism, intelligence and incorruptibility. As a practical matter, it doesn’t hurt if guards are handy with weapons and excel at the wheel of a vehicle to handle the corkscrew turns on the mountain and desert passageways, particularly in the stark landscape near Iraq that Al-Zyoud calls “the land of God.”
And a keen eye can’t be ignored either. From his Amman office, the general flashes a slide on the screen showing a heavily dressed and veiled female refugee from Syria. The revelation arrives with the next slide. The “woman” was actually a man wearing prosthetics under his robe and carrying his sister’s identity card. Border guards noticed a mannish swagger to the refugee’s gait. “The Soldiers picked up clues that the man was not a lady,” Al-Zyoud says with a chuckle.
American military officers were so struck by Al-Zyoud’s dedication to his profession — dedication that includes personal concern for the men under his command — that they inducted the Jordanian general into the Honorable Order of St. Barbara. It’s a military honor society for exemplary artillerymen in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. Membership comes with a silver medallion attached to a red ribbon.
In trying to detect the next trouble spot on the border, the former artillery commander realizes there are few fixed points of entry. Those change with the whims of the refugees. A sudden upsurge in violence in Syria can choke off all movement as refugees lie low. Once the guns fall silent, a press of humanity returns to the border crossings. Al-Zyoud’s forces will be in position.
“Our main and most important task,” he says, “is to provide security to our kingdom.”