After ISIS’ Execution, What Are Jordan’s Options ?
Published Thursday, February 5, 2015
The solidarity and support Jordan has received over the ordeal of its captured pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, gives Amman legitimacy to fight the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) that the government did not have before. As much as the immolation of the pilot has hurt the Jordanians, it has given leeway to decision-makers, who face numerous internal and external problems, to decide on a response.
Over the past two days, the public and official reaction in Jordan to the execution of the captured pilot Moaz al-Kasssbeh has revealed great solidarity. They did not, however, provide answers to a number of questions that the Jordanian public should have raised to its leaders before the dramatic events.
Indeed, if Amman’s participation in the international anti-ISIS coalition had carried on without Kasasbeh’s capture, the Jordanians would have eventually found themselves facing uncomfortable questions sooner or later in terms of their relationship with ISIS.
Why did the Jordanian government choose to align itself against the Syrian regime and support the fighting and militants there? Why did Jordan turn a blind eye to its border, and help militants enter and train in Jordan? Why did the government host a conference of the Iraqi opposition (made up of elements that are supposedly linked to ISIS) at a time when ISIS was at the gates of Baghdad?
All these questions and more seem to have been rendered moot for the moment, due to the horrible way in which Moaz al-Kasasbeh was executed. However, these questions do not just date back to the recent crisis. Answers should have been sought at the start of the crisis in Syria, specifically since Jordan became the second crossing point — after Turkey — for militants and their equipment into Syria. As a result, a “dangerous belt” formed south of Damascus thanks to the Kingdom of Jordan. True, the Jordanian armed forces fired at any militant convoy attempting to cross from Syria, but it neglected to do the same to militants crossing into Syria.
There should be a review of what happened over the course of these few years. Jordan cannot be part of a major war in the region and still remain a permanent oasis of safety for militants. King Abdullah, who cut short a visit to the United States, returned carrying many concerns about what is to come. He vowed a harsh response, saying, “Jordan and its Mustafawi Arab Army (the official name of the Jordanian army) will respond to what its dear son was subjected to, to the criminal and cowardly act, because this terrorist organization is not only fighting us, but fighting true Islam.”
The limits of this response are not yet clear, for two main reasons.
First, Kasasbeh was lost during an air sortie, in the context of air strikes that have proven ineffective so far. This calls into question the idea that an effective response can arise from air strikes.
Second, Amman does not control what is taking place around it. Even though Amman has opened its bases to foreign warplanes and took part in air strikes, it does not have the option of fighting a battle in the direct sense (ground war, etc.) against ISIS, whether in Iraq or Syria.
Although Damascus, in its statement condemning the crime, called on the Jordanian government to cooperate in the fight against terrorism represented in ISIS and al-Nusra Front, it is unlikely that the Kingdom will accept such an invitation in light of Amman’s continued anti-Syrian regime stance.
Even Jordan’s quick decision to implement the death sentence issued years ago against the Iraqi nationals Sajida Rishawi and Ziad Karbouli, hours after ISIS posted the video showing Kasasbeh’s immolation, was not an expression of strength as much as it was an attempt to appease popular and tribal anger.
However, this anger was not directed at the state, at least not yet, because the question “what brought us here” has not come to the minds of the Jordanians so far. Not many would dare to blame what happened on Jordan’s involvement in the war on ISIS.
On the other hand, Islamist groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, did not dare swim against the current, so to speak.
After voicing sharp criticism against Jordan’s participation in the war on ISIS in the past, they now all signed statements denouncing the execution. The Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm (the Islamic Action Front Party) sent a delegate to Kasasbeh’s home in Karak to offer condolences, led by the group’s Comptroller General Hammam Said.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s position could be construed as being the result of weakness. To be sure, the group is still at odds with the regime, which continues to detain its Deputy Comptroller General, Zaki Bani Irsheid.
Interestingly, Bani Irsheid, prior to Kasasbeh’s execution, said that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was unlikely to return to the political scene. In an interview Al-Arab TV conducted with him in prison, he said, “The accurate description of what happened was they (the Brotherhood in Egypt) have failed to manage the crisis, and not that their popularity had declined.”
While Bani Irsheid said the worst is yet to come for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, he criticized the way in which the Jordanian government has handled the pilot’s issue, adding, “I fear Kasasbeh may no longer be alive.” He also said, “The Islamic State is trying to weaken the internal front in Jordan.”
Despite the wave of denunciations, the authorities in Jordan know that the Islamist camp in the country has not changed. The authorities are aware of increasing concerns that the reservoir of would be ISIS-recruits who come from the Kingdom to Iraq and Syria could overflow soon, with rising support for the Salafi ideology represented by ISIS. Recall that not long ago, ISIS’ flags were seen flying in the southern provinces such as Ma’an.
Here, it is relevant to ask questions about the tribal situation in the kingdom and how it will influence future events. Indeed, as time passes and the anger subsides, this will allow certain factions to return to opposing Amman’s involvement in the war on ISIS, on the ground that what happened so far should be enough for Jordan to learn its lesson.
The biggest fear remains the bombshell detonated by ISIS following the footage of the Jordanian pilot’s execution. ISIS published the names and addresses of 90 Jordanian pilots, and said it wanted them dead. Regardless of how the group managed to obtain this information, the danger is that ISIS has implicitly called for igniting the internal arena in Jordan by targeting some of those names using sleeper cells. This has prompted the authorities to take measures to protect the pilots, according to security sources.
Pending the practical results of the meeting held between the king and the general command of the armed forces, Amman is keeping one eye on the home front and one eye on the border. The real response will be measured by the extent of complying with Damascus’s appeal, and taking the initiative — jointly or unilaterally — to control the border with Syria first, given the effect this has on the balance of power in southern Syria and, secondarily, Iraq.
This should come before any military adventures in open theaters of war that the Jordanian army has no experience fighting in. Meanwhile, it is possible to say that the other test will be at home. Will the Kingdom dismantle and apprehend terrorist cells rather than content itself with the arrest of prisoners of conscience?
It is worth mentioning that, on the sidelines of King Abdullah’s visit to Washington, Jordan signed a memorandum under which the United States will provide $3 billion in military and economic aid over the next three years.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.