Why did the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) burn to death Jordanian fighter pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh?
First of all, this was a “cover-up operation” for ISIL, trying to whitewash its defeat in Kobane two weeks ago. By increasing the level of its barbarism and creating a much larger wave of shock, it was able to jog people’s memories again about its supposed “invincibility.”
Another aim was to attract more jihadists from around the world by widening the horrifying effect.
Yet its main objective is to create fear and chaos within Jordan and other coalition members in the region. Since al-Kasasbeh was taken hostage by ISIL last December, discontent towards Jordan’s anti-ISIL role was already on the rise in the country. Dozens of people protested, calling on King Abdullah to pull out of the coalition. The powerful tribes, several of which form the loyal backbone of the Jordanian armed forces and security services, were among them. The execution last week has only sharpened and increased these existing reactions.
On the other hand, however, supporters of King Abdullah are in favor of taking revenge. This incident, therefore, has heightened the country’s dilemma.
ISIL also aims to horrify regional governments and in this way split the coalition. It had already been partly successful in achieving this. There have been four Arab countries that have been taking part in anti-ISIL attacks in Syria since they began last September; Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). After the capture of al-Kasasbeh by ISIL in December, the UAE had withdrawn from participating in airstrikes due to security concerns. With the same excuse, Bahrain hasn’t flown since the early days of the campaign.
Jordan, on the other hand, has not publicized its commitment, fearing revenge attacks by ISIL. After all, among these four countries, Jordan is the one in the most vulnerable situation. It is the only Arab member of the coalition that shares borders with both Syria and Iraq and is hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Moreover, there is sympathy and even support for ISIL among Jordanian Sunni extremists. It is the third-largest foreign Arab contingent after Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. Today, 2,000-2,500 Jordanians are known to be fighting with ISIL.
Furthermore, the hotel bombings carried out by al-Qaeda in Amman in 2005, often called “Jordan’s 9/11,” are a reminder of the risks of homegrown fanaticism. Hence it is safe to assume that Jordan will probably become more cautious in due course.
Therefore, King Abdullah’s first reaction should not be deceptive. He vowed a “relentless war” against ISIL, certainly to calm down the people and to appeal to their sense of patriotism. In addition, Jordan executed two al-Qaeda militants, intensified its attacks in Syria and also attacked targets in Iraq, the first time an Arab coalition member conducted bombings outside of Syria.
Yet after the first wake of reactions, King Abdullah will certainly act more cautiously, since any action would further weaken the already lukewarm support for the country’s participation in the coalition.
The same applies for Japan. Before burning al-Kasasbeh, ISIL had killed two Japanese hostages right after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the government’s $200 million commitment to the coalition.
Abe’s first reaction was similar to King Abdullah’s. The day after the video of the beheadings was released, Abe stated that Japan’s 1947 Constitution, which forbids the country from having a standing army and from taking part in war, should be amended. Hence, ISIL has broadened the debate in the country about Japanese overseas military engagement.
However, Abe has also made it clear that the country would not join in any active military engagement against ISIL, nor would it provide any logistical support.
Another of ISIL’s objectives is to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the coalition members in the region. The more the regional countries feel threatened, the more they will urge the U.S. to become more active.
However, the U.S. share of the burden has already increased since September. It has provided 92 percent of the 1,011 strikes in Syria and 72 percent of the 1,236 strikes in Iraq. As the war continues, apparently the U.S. will increasingly become the predominant actor in the air fight.
And vice versa, the U.S. will put more pressure on the regional countries to commit stronger. Certainly Turkey will also get its share. On the other hand, however, the risk is escalating also for Turkey. The fact that ISIL beheaded a hostage from the region for the first time points at the growing threat. Moreover, the memories of the suicide bombing in one of the most touristic places in Istanbul two weeks ago are still fresh.
To cut a long story short: It is getting more and more tense, and the more tense it gets, the more the U.S. comes to attention. Just a humble caution.