Jordan’s fight against ISIL

Jordan’s air force says it carried out 56 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, targeting buildings controlled by ISIL fighters

Earlier this week, Jordan’s air force announced it has carried out 56 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, targeting training camps and weapon warehouses controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. In three days, it said, the air force killed about 7,000 fighters. U.S. Central Command says 24 targets hit were in Syria, and it has been reported that many of those were in ISIL’s assumed headquarters, Raqqa.

This follows what Jordan’s Information Minister Mohammed Momani vowed would be an “earth shattering” response to Lt. Moaz al-Kassasbeh’s execution by ISIL. In December of 2014, Kassasbeh’s plane suffered a mechanical failure over Syria, and he was captured by ISIL. For months, Jordan was involved in negotiations for his release.

Jordan’s military is a part of an anti-ISIL coalition organized by the U.S. late last year. According to the Jordanian military, its fighter jets have participated in just under a fifth of the coalition’s bombing runs and make up 17 percent of its air power. U.S. Central Command is leading intelligence gathering.

Is the Jordanian effort symbolic and useful in emphasizing a Sunni monarch’s opposition to ISIL?

Is Jordan in a good position to provide significant aid in the fight?

We asked a panel of experts for the Inside Story.

Mamoun Abu Nowar

Mamoun Abu Nowar is a former pilot for the Jordanian air force. 

Inside Story: Given the instability in Jordan — politically and economically, with high unemployment among youths — is Jordan prepared for this kind of campaign? Does it have the capabilities to embark in this kind of effort?

Mamoun Abu Nowar: We have very limited resources, and we need immediate aid, about $1 billion just to keep this campaign going. We need spare parts for airplanes, smart bombs, etc. Otherwise, we’ll get refugees from neighboring countries, and our infrastructure is very bad nowadays. So, yes, we need resources for the logistical resources for our mission to fight ISIL.

Does Jordan’s initiation of a fight, aligning with the U.S.-led coalition, risk upsetting ISIL sympathizers and furthering anti-Western sentiment in pockets across the rural south?

No. Jordan’s interest is to keep the fight away from our border, and by doing that, we must fight past our borders. If we don’t, Saudi, Sinai, Egypt are in trouble. It’s our war and everyone’s war. ISIL has no border, no limit. We have to be careful. So, no, it’s everyone’s war. 

What kind of influence does the U.S. have on Jordan’s military strategy? Is the U.S. calling the shots?

It’s a strong relationship. What I feel is that the U.S. isn’t giving Jordan what Jordan deserves. For example, the Predator [drone]. That can play a great role in fighting ISIL. Also, Jordan needs $1 billion in aid to keep going. Otherwise, we have $30 billion in debt. It’s a lot.

The whole strategy needs to be revised again. It’s not a clear plan. It’s not a clear strategy and doesn’t have any endgame. It’s too slow. They had good direction as a collation, but it’s too slow. If they didn’t intensify airstrikes, it would have taken a long time. 

Christopher Swift

Christopher Swift is an adjunct professor of national security studies at Georgetown University and a fellow at the University of Virginia’s Center for National Security Law.

Why did it take so long for even the elites of Jordan to become angry with ISIL?

Christopher Swift: There are different narratives about what ISIL is in the Middle East. One of the difficulties people have is coming to grips with the idea that ISIL could be quite as bad as it is. Over the last several years the concern in that part of the world has been over the Syrian civil war and what their government is doing to the Sunni community. Coming to grips with the fact that the people fighting [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad could be as brutal — if not more — has been very hard. There was a very strong effort initially to cut a deal to get this pilot back. The pilot’s father is an important tribal figure in the coalition supporting the king. The king was trying to protect his constituents. At this point, they have made it clear that there is no good faith left and the time for diplomacy is long over.

Sometimes these governments do things that are unpopular with their populations because it is seen as serving Washington’s interests. There is always a little bit of pushback when that happens. If you look at the public debate in the UAE over whether or not the UAE should be fighting with the U.S. against a Sunni group, the elites have one view of it, and the man in the street may have another view of it. It should not surprise us that other countries have domestic politics too.

Dalia Dassa Kaye

Dalia Dassa Kaye is the director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy and a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp. In 2011 and 2012 she was a visiting professor and fellow at UCLA’s International Institute and Burkle Center.

What can we expect out of the Jordan’s next moves against ISIL?

Dalia Dassa Kaye: In the near term, we can expect what we’re seeing this past week — a very public and aggressive stance to show that Jordan is basically launching revenge against group. King Abdullah II needs to show a show of force for domestic purposes to show he’s really dealing with this. And so I think in the short term, we’ll see increased, sustained air attacks, which have really increased. A real clear military response, at least from the air point of view.

I think whether there will be a ground operation is a question mark. There could be special operation forces launching attacks inside Syria. I would assume they’re trying to target [ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-]Baghdadi. That would be a real prize for Jordan, to show there is some accountability for what ISIL has done to their pilot. In the near term, we’ll see more of this very rough rhetoric and military action, joined by some of the coalition partners.

I think what is less certain is how sustainable this will be. What is really important to remember is that King Abdullah is still walking a tightrope. A significant part of the country is sympathetic to grievances — not ISIL per se — but the grievances among Sunnis in the region. 

It's important to remember that just because sentiment against ISIL has increased doesn’t necessarily translate into more support of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL. A lot of concern of U.S. policy in the region is intervention. Many are sympathetic of the hypocrisy of the campaign in Syria and Iraq. What happened to [President Barack] Obama’s red line [promising action against Assad if he used chemical weapons]? They're more concerned of Assad’s removal. All of those concerns that were there are going to resurface and probably more obviously after initial grief dissipates. 

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