When the video of the murder of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh was released, the King of Jordan was in Washington. This brutal act led directly to discussions about the need to resolve delays to existing US arms deliveries to Jordan.
It also raised another question: to what extent should the US policy that guarantees Israel a military technological advantage over its neighbours — the Qualitative Military Edge (QME) — be retained in its current form? The policy has been informally in place since the 1960s, but some politicians in Washington are now arguing that QME needs to be re-examined in light of the needs of states that border ISIS and which are contributing to the US-led coalition against the group.
Others, citing the example of Egypt, warn that a swift transition of power could mean weapons end up in the hands of the wrong kind of government — or worse, as was demonstrated in Iraq when ISIS took over swathes of territory and US-supplied weaponry with it.
The political effect of the pilot's death in Jordan was immediate. King Abdullah announced that 'the gloves are off'. Two convicted terrorists on death row were executed and in the following days Jordan launched a number of airstrikes on ISIS compounds in Syria.
But why were the gloves ever on?
The answer lies in the domestically-driven vacillations of the Jordanian state over its relations with Islamist groups. In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood retains significant grassroots support and has not been labelled a terrorist organisation by the Government. The Brotherhood has managed to establish this uneasy partnership with the regime by renouncing any violent takeover of the state as a policy and from time to time participating in the election process. The Brotherhood does however maintain significant influence over society through charitable work and education, which Jordanian secularists argue is helping to generate extremism within the population.
The Jordanian regime manages its relations with the Brotherhood through a combination of repression and appeasement. In return, the Brotherhood calibrates its rhetoric depending on how the regime treats it. For example, recent Brotherhood demands for political reform have coincided with increased government surveillance of Islamists in Jordan and the arrest of a leading Brotherhood figure for criticising Jordan's relations with the UAE. This has angered the Brotherhood, which argues that targeting Islamists will only lead to the development of more extreme groups.
Aware of his vulnerabilities, King Abdullah prefers limited co-option over coercion with other Islamist groups as well. The regime recently released a prominent Islamist scholar, Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, who is described as an al Qaeda mentor. The release of Maqdisi is believed to be due in part to his past criticism of ISIS. The hope is that he will mollify Islamists in Jordan and provide legitimacy for the regime to participate more fully in the Western-led coalition against ISIS.
From the international perspective it is perhaps unsurprising that Jordan has decided to take more decisive action against ISIS.
Its relationship with the West — particularly the UK and the US — has always been strong, and doing so puts it in alignment with other key Western allies in the region such as the Gulf states, a large source of revenue for Jordan. But again, domestic public opinion matters. Prior to release of the video of the pilot's death, some Jordanian groups were calling for the King to pull out of the US-led coalition. It was clear from Government efforts to obtain the pilot's freedom (including by offering to release convicted terrorist Sajida Al-Rishawi) that the regime was on the fence as to whether to use appeasement or aggression. Interestingly Jordan is reported as being the second largest source of new members for ISIS after Saudi Arabia.
Rumours from the Arab media illustrate a further example of this balancing strategy (if you can call it that).
While conducting airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, Jordan is said to be providing support to Jabhat Al-Nusra in the north of Jordan. Also, the latest push by Hizbullah into the southernmost part of Syria is said to be unnerving the Jordanian regime which, whilst OK with the Syrian regime regaining control of the south, is not keen to see the Iran–Hizbullah axis so close to its borders. Conversely, some pro-opposition voices in Jordan have criticised the Government for helping to slow down the progress of the Syrian opposition when it got too close to the Jordanian border.
The Jordanian reaction to ISIS is reflective of the reactions of many the Arab Gulf states which are concurrently courting and suppressing Islamist groups – one assumes in the hope they will escape any blowback if ISIS comes knocking. Jordan, like its Gulf counterparts, will probably continue to provide support to groups like Jahbat al-Nusra in the face of the perceived threat of the Iran–Hizbullah axis while engaging in the campaign against ISIS in the meantime.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Royal Hashemite Court RHC.