The Islamic State horrifically burned to death Jordanian pilot First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, recording it in such a cinematic way as to ensure we cannot be mistaken that they are impatient for the world to see their deeds.
But then we were surprised to see someone firmly, immediately, unambiguously stand up – King Abdullah II of Jordan. Less than 12 hours after the event, he had two terrorists executed. The message was clear: we will not allow this to continue. Now they are set to increase airstrikes.
The Western reaction, at least from the Right, was to praise Abdullah, who quoted no less an icon for manly steadfastness than Clint Eastwood, before promising that “the response of Jordan and its army after what happened to our dear son will be severe.” They plan to take the fight to the Islamic State.
Numerous pictures of Abdullah – who resembles a Middle Eastern John F. Kennedy – in military garb from his time in the Jordanian Royal Army, are making their way around social media, indicating that people are looking for a militaristic image in their leaders against the Islamic State.
After the wishy-washy response of President Obama to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, some Americans seemed to wish our heads of state were switched. Anyone who knows Putin understands how ridiculous that would be. But Abdullah represents the pragmatic and decisive fortitude that Jordan finally settled on in regards to terrorism in the 1970s – a type the Middle East needs more and frankly this administration could learn from.
Jordan knows how to stand up to terrorism. They have done it before, in a fight arguably for their own survival. From their creation as a state in the 1920s through the 1960s, Jordan, one of the smaller and poorer states in the region, had always tried to play all sides in the Levant.
Often reluctantly, they entered into conflict with their neighbor Israel in order to prove their pro-Arab bona fides. The most recent instance was their involvement in the ill-advised Six Day War, in which Israel famously prevented the Egyptian element of the attack before it happened by bombing its air force while it was still on the ground.
More relevant to our purposes here, it was then that Israel took control of the West Bank, sending hundreds of thousands of refugees into Jordan, which then became a staging ground for Yasser Arafat’s Syrian-supported Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to launch attacks into Israel’s newly acquired territory. Jordan felt the brunt of Israeli retaliation as much as the terrorists and grew less and less fervent about Palestinian cause.
In the eyes of the PLO, Jordan was now the enemy, and they began to launch attacks domestically. Then-leader King Hussein (Abdullah’s father) was ambushed in his motorcade, though he was not killed. A branch of the PLO hijacked four planes and blew them up. The PLO ultimately took control of the capitol of Amman. Enough was enough.
“They violated our hospitality,” Prime Minister Wasfi al-Tal said. King Hussein declared martial law, sending soldiers in to retake Amman despite the danger. Syria, always the PLO’s enabler, threateningly rolled tanks to the border. Realizing their own stakes in Jordan’s victory – and with a little nudging from Kissinger – Israel stared down Syria military across the border, daring them to get involved. Had Syria gotten involved with no one to interfere, it would certainly have gone the other way for Jordan. But Syria blinked and pulled back.
After a week of intense fighting, the Jordanian army took back control. They continued to attack the PLO into the next year, finally driving them out of the country for good. Remembering so clearly that terrorist groups had almost cost their country, Hussein and later Abdullah have since been strong on terrorism – with the notable exception of the peace treaties with Arafat, which everyone, not just Jordan, seemed to go for.
Jordan sees terrorist activities as a threat to its own existence and stability. It will take a firm stance and take attacks seriously. For this reason, Defense One’s Kevin Baron argues in the National Journal that this is what the Pentagon has been waiting for: when the War on Terror becomes the war of Middle Eastern states and all of the efforts “to train, equip, fund, strengthen, and professionalize the militaries of Middle East dictators and kingdoms” will pay off.
Senator John McCain vocalized this view when, in response to Abdullah’s actions, he said “America has no greater ally in the fight against terrorism than Jordan. And, as we made clear to King Abdullah in our meeting yesterday, this committee’s immediate concern is to ensure Jordan has all of the equipment and resources necessary to continue taking the fight directly to ISIL.”
Baron further described the Jordanian military infrastructure:
Jordan’s military, with a $1.5 billion budget, has more than 1,300 tanks and nearly 250 aircraft, according to one recent accounting, ready to fight the next great land war that has never come… More notable, perhaps, are Jordan’s special-operations capabilities, designed specifically for this kind of fight. Jordan boasts some of the most elite special-operation forces in the world; they for years have fought alongside American operators, having been trained, equipped, and paid for in part by the U.S. Indeed, Jordan is home to one of the world’s premier counterterrorism proving grounds, the King Abdullah Special Operations Training Center. Opened in 2009, a wave of top U.S. brass toured the impressive center, which was built exactly for this purpose. It has mock buildings, airliners, and streets where elite teams from around the globe come to practice counterterrorism missions, from hijackings to hostage rescue.
Here we come to the limitation to the strategy, at least as the situation stands now: clear a stand as Jordan has taken against the Islamic State – and it is significant – Abdullah is still pragmatic about his relative power in the region. He is unlikely to press far into Syria or Iraq to pursue IS terrorists – and especially not unilaterally.
Furthermore, Jordan, a rare source of stability in the region, does not want to risk a descent into domestic chaos should the situation deteriorate. Charles Krauthammer thinks this is the strategy of the Islamic State in angering Jordan – drawing them into a larger fight they cannot win.
To truly take advantage of this decision on Abdullah’s part, the United States needs to include them as part of a larger strategy that includes more states in the region fed up with terrorism. Krauthammer argues that Turkey needs to be involved in the same way, no small matter, considering that Turkey has become more hostile to Western allies – in particular, Israel – in the region.
This is why things such as the outcome of the Arab Spring matter: fighting an enemy in his own region is a lot easier when the regional powers are hostile to your enemy too.