Has the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, also known under various other identities and acronyms (IS, ISIS etc), overplayed its hand with the videoed burning to death of Jordanian air force pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh? London think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies believes so.
In a comment by Ben Fishman, consulting senior fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at the privately run Institute, the think tank cited the timing of the ISIL broadcast of the immolation film that coincided with a Washington visit of Jordanian King Abdullah, meetings with US President Barack Obama and other senior US officials and, perhaps most crucially, the signing of a new US aid deal.
“3 February was supposed to be a good day for Jordan,” Fishman writes. “King Abdullah was in Washington in part to mark the agreement on a new $1 billion annual assistance package. Aid to Jordan has long received bipartisan support – a rarity in Washington – in no small part because of the king’s frequent visits to Capitol Hill, along with his White House meetings. The updated assistance package increases economic and security assistance to Jordan by more than $300 million annually for the next three years. It is intended to offset Jordan’s persistent economic struggles, help it contend with the ongoing influx of Syrian refugees and strengthen its military capacity to contend with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) on its borders.
“As much as the Hashemite kingdom benefits from its close ties with Washington, politics in Jordan demands a careful balancing between King Abdullah’s pro-Western policy inclinations and the need not to appear to be a puppet of the West (as I explored in the December 2014–January 2015 issue of Survival). Exploiting that vulnerability was no doubt the intention behind the horrific execution of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh whose plane crashed over Syria on 24 December 2014 due to mechanical issues.
“The sophisticated media apparatus of ISIS released the video of al-Kasasbeh’s immolation shortly after Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh signed the new assistance agreement. If the timing was not planned to the minute, ISIS certainly knew about the king’s visit to Washington this week and chose to release the video during his absence from the kingdom.
“ISIS’s message seems clear: align with the enemy and Jordanian soldiers will be treated even worse than the apostate Shi’ites and Kurds fighting them in Iraq,” Fishman writes. “It is a message to Jordanian Islamists to challenge the pro-Western monarchy, and to Jordan’s tribal population – the foundation of the military – that following King Abdullah will only lead Jordan to disaster.
“This time, however, ISIS may have overplayed its hand,” Fishman claims. “Initially, the capture of al-Kasasbeh led to some protests by the pilot’s family and tribe against the palace for not doing enough to secure the pilot’s release, and in opposition to Jordan’s participation in the war against ISIS altogether. Pictures of al-Kasasbeh in his uniform reflected this sentiment.” But that changed when ISIS demanded a prisoner release to spare the pilot’s life.
“Jordanian nationalism will almost certainly peak in the immediate aftermath of Kasasbeh’s killing,” Fishman writes. That sentiment will likely persist for the next several months, “but Jordan remains vulnerable as the war with ISIS drags on.”
If Jordan’s friends really want to help ensure its future stability, they will need to find a way to ‘degrade and defeat’ ISIS’s military and ideological strengths more rapidly, writes Fishman. “If anything positive is to come of Moaz al-Kasasbeh’s tragic death, he could become a symbol for those who reject a return to medieval brutality in the name of religious fundamentalism.”
The IISS was founded in 1958 on the back of Western academic activities and research on nuclear deterrence against the former Soviet Union. The IISS was amongst influential supporters of the 2003 US-led invasion, post-9/11, of Iraq, which is now widely seen as one of the key triggers of Middle East instability and terrorist activities.