Thursday, February 12, 2015

"War against terrorism": The Jordanian option

With months of airstrikes failing to dislodge Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria, the focus is shifting to Jordan in the war against terrorism

Jordan

Jordan's King Abdullah (4th R) speaks during his talks with Czech President Milos Zeman at the Royal Palace in Amman February 11, 2015 

Since the seizure of key Sunni-populated cities by jihadist insurgents and their declaration of an Islamic caliphate in the region last year, much of Iraq has been in flames with dire consequences for the conflict-riven nation, its neighbours and the world.

The Iraqi military, Shiaa militias, Sunni tribes and Kurdish forces have been trying to drive back the Islamic State (ISIS) forces but with modest success as most of the territories the group has captured remain under militant control.

Though the insurgency could break the country apart, neither Iraqi nor the US-led international coalition helping in the war against IS seems eager to say when the long-awaited all-out war to eject IS will be set in motion.

Since mid-June, when ISIS captured Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, and made startling advances into other Sunni cities, the areas have been the scene of intense back-and-forth fighting with the Islamic State.

At this point, the fight seems largely aimed to contain the resilient insurgency inside the Sunni-populated areas with little evidence that the liberation of Mosul as well as Tikrit and Fallujah is on the list of urgent priorities of Iraq’s Shia-led government or the Kurdish authorities and the international coalition.

Seen from this perspective, all the parties involved in the fight against IS seem either ill-prepared or unwilling to finish the job of defeating the terror group and are instead resorting to unexplained delaying tactics.

Iraq's Shiaa-led government has secured Baghdad and Shia-populated areas by relying heavily on Iranian-backed Shia militias. Shia prime minister Haider al-Abadi has made it clear that he does not want "to go into a war in Mosul in which the aftermath will be unknown.”

On the other hand, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have pushed back IS fighters and are now holding their ground and digging in along a new border line drawn up after seizing large swathes of land following the chaos triggered by the rise of IS.

Kurdistan Region president Massoud Barzani, who has repeatedly pledged to seek a referendum on Kurdish independence from the rest of Iraq, has described the new frontier as being "demarcated in blood."

As for helping in liberating Mosul, Barzani told the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper that this "will depend on the degree of preparedness of the Iraqi army. Any advances by our troops from their current positions will require [our] consideration in advance," he said.

Iraq’s Sunnis, supposed to be the main component in any strategy to defeat IS, are also divided between those loyal to the militant group and those supporting the government. Thousands of Sunni tribesmen are willing to hit back against the militants, but many are not fully on board.

The US-led coalition meanwhile continues to pound IS positions with airstrikes, but with no plans to send in combat troops to fight the group on the ground. US president Barack Obama has described his slow response in Iraq as part of his newly declared "strategic patience" strategy in the region.

In Syria, where the terror group has also occupied large chunks of territory, efforts to push IS back are foundering, and the group is reportedly making important gains despite its bitter defeat in the town of Kobani. 

If any conclusion can be drawn from this messy situation, it is that there is no comprehensive strategy to wipe out IS and that even if the militants are defeated or simply degraded there are no concrete ideas on how to reintegrate Sunnis back into the old states of Iraq and Syria.

This is more evident in Iraq as attempts to take back the territories captured by IS and the Kurdish Peshmergas will test the willingness of all the parties concerned to save Iraq as a unitary state.

With the crisis in Iraq and Syria now becoming more serious and threatening the countries’ neighbours and the world at large, the debate is being redirected towards the possibility of sending in combat troops to fight IS.

One argument that is widely being used is that the Iraqi security forces are not prepared to push back IS and therefore that foreign troops may be needed to respond to the threat.

But as the United States continues to dither about how to respond, ideas about the possibility of a regional ground force have started to arise after the brutal murder of a Jordanian pilot by jihadists earlier this month.

The gruesome killing of a Jordanian pilot at the hands of Islamic State militants has unleashed a wave of speculation about an increasing military role for Jordan in the war against IS.

Following the execution of Muath al-Kassasbeh, Jordanian officials have said the kingdom will go after IS militants wherever they are and plans to "wipe them out completely."

"The blood of martyr Ma'ath al-Kassasbeh will not be in vain and the response of Jordan and its army after what happened to our dear son will be severe," Jordanian king Abdullah said in a statement. "We will hit them in their strongholds and centres."

Since the immolation of the pilot, Jordan has stepped up its air force assaults on militant positions, including strikes on militant strongholds inside Iraq.

Jordan's combative response has prompted some international law experts to speculate that the kingdom's military actions following the murder of the pilot are probably being conducted beyond the needs of individual self-defence and with a view to a calculation of broader proportionality that in practice means moving towards playing a more robust role in the war.

Though Jordan has not confirmed it is ready to send in ground forces to fight IS, the cry for revenge and such interpretations of the kingdom's intensified airstrikes have shifted the focus to Jordan.

Some Jordanian officials have already given signals of a possible ground engagement with IS. "We are upping the ante. We're going after them wherever they are with everything that we have. But it's not the beginning, and it's certainly not the end," Jordan's foreign minister Nasser Judeh told CNN.

The possibility of an increasing Jordanian role in the war was also raised by US envoy John Allen, who told the official Jordanian news agency on Sunday that “there will be a major counter-offensive on the ground in Iraq in the weeks ahead."

He said “the coalition will provide major firepower associated with that.”

However, the speculation about a greater Jordanian role comes amid talk that the crisis in Iraq and Syria may continue for some time. Some such signs are coming from western leaders, suggesting that the fight against IS could take years.

British prime minister David Cameron told , last week that the threat posed by the “disease” of Islamist extremism would last for a generation. Former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia Sir John Jenkins, who retired earlier this year, told the UK newspaper the Daily Telegraph that the instability caused by ISIS could last from 10 to 15 years.

Whispering about an expanded Jordanian role in the Iraqi and Syrian crises has been in circulation for a while. What is significant about the idea is that it comes amid the turmoil that is wracking the region and threatens many of its countries with remapping.

On 30 November, the Lebanese National News Agency quoted Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shia Hezbollah Party, as saying that Jordan may become part of a plan to create "a Sunni region" by taking over parts of Iraq and Syria that are now populated by Sunnis.

Nasrallah warned that Jordan could later annex the territories before the new country was turned into "an alternative Palestinian state,” an old notion promoted by some radical Israeli politicians who want to transfer Palestinians in the West Bank to Jordan in a plan known as the Jordanian Option.

US senator Lindsey Graham has been quoted as saying that "Jordan is now ready to send ground forces into Iraq and Syria" to try to destroy IS. Graham made his remarks before a meeting with king Abdullah before ISIS announced the murder of al-Kassasbeh.

He said Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations were also on board.

On the surface, the new Jordanian angle looks like another Middle East cloak-and-dagger game, but the question remains of how far the volatile kingdom is ready to go with such a precarious policy at a time when its neighbours are threatened with Balkanisation.

It is not news that Jordan has been under pressure from the United States and other partners in the international coalition to open its borders for military activities against IS in Iraq and Syria. King Abdullah has resisted the pressure for fear that such interference could be destabilising to his kingdom.

Given Jordan's geopolitical and demographical realities, such a gross manifestation of interference in two of Jordan's strategic neighbours would present a complicated challenge to the regional order.

Jordan's army is too small for such an undertaking alone.

Despite the cries for revenge that followed the pilot's murder, a large proportion of Jordan's population is believed to be opposed to Amman's participation in the US-led air campaign in Iraq and Syria.

A bigger military role against the militants could ignite more voices of dissent, especially among the Islamist bloc.

Worst of all, both Iraq's Shiaa-led government and the regime of president Bashar al-Assad in Syria have categorically rejected outside help in battling IS militants.

On Monday, Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem said Damascus would not accept Jordanian or other foreign ground troops crossing into Syria to fight Islamic State. Any such incursion would be considered a violation of Syrian sovereignty, he said.