Just Because You Quote Clint Eastwood Doesn’t Make You a Cowboy

Jordan’s King Abdullah may be talking tough about revenge against the Islamic State, but don't expect the cavalry to follow.


The Islamic State’s horrific immolation of Jordanian Air Force Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh has produced a clear “rally ‘round the flag” effect in the Hashemite Kingdom. Spontaneous demonstrations across Amman and in Kasasbeh’s hometown of Kerak saw young men calling for bloody revenge. The government-aligned media was in lockstep: “We will have revenge,” read the headline of al-Ghad.

Early Wednesday morning, the Jordanian government took a first step in delivering that eye for an eye, executing two long-imprisoned al Qaeda operatives. But the kingdom is going further, too. The murdered pilot’s father, Safi Youssef al-Kasasbeh, who earlier had blamed the Jordanian government’s involvement in the international coalition against the Islamic State (IS) for his son’s fate, called upon the military to avenge his son. The vengeance has begun: On Thursday, the Jordanian Air Force launched airstrikes on IS targets in eastern Syria and, according to some reports, Iraq.

So far the Jordanian public loves it. After the bombing raids, the Jordanian fighter jets circled back over Kasasbeh’s hometown for a victory lap, where the crowds assembled on the ground below cheered and clapped. Jordanian social media even briefly entertained — rather hopefully — the idea that King Abdullah, a trained pilot, would lead sorties over Syria. Even the king’s reported quote from Clint Eastwood’s western Unforgiven went over well.

So has Jordanian public opinion made a decisive turn in favor of more aggressive action against the Islamic State? This is just what Washington wants. But although hope springs eternal, the upswing in Jordanian military actions is probably not. Visions of more elaborate or intensive operations featuring cross-border Jordanian special forces raids in southern Syria and Iraq’s Anbar province to strike IS formations might seem plausible at this juncture, but there is reason to doubt that they will ever happen.

Despite martial public posturing — on the evening after Kasasbeh’s murder video was released, Jordanian state TV looped archived images of the king inspecting his battle-ready troops — the instinctually conservative Jordanian security services are unlikely to permit this provocation to reverse their aversion to involvement in either Syria or Iraq. The realists in the General Intelligence Directorate, the kingdom’s powerful spy agency, and the Royal Court judge that the overriding Jordanian interest in containing the conflict in Syria and Iraq remains more important than appeasing the street’s call for blood. What is more, they know that such examples of “propaganda of the deed” are, at least in part, meant to provoke just such an overreaction.

They also realize that public opinion is fickle and that the swift outpouring of support for military action against the Islamic State could just as quickly dissipate. The Royal Court surely recalls that only days ago, members of Kasasbeh’s powerful Bararsheh tribe were protesting outside the king’s palace, chanting, “Abdullah, why are we fighting?” (At the time, the security services, which usually have little tolerance for dissent, stood down out of fear of antagonizing the tribal elites upon whom regime stability rests.)

While Jordanians may be grief-stricken and outraged, the underlying factors that produced initial skepticism of military operations remain unchanged. A poll from last September, a month after the airstrikes began, found that a mere 62 percent of Jordanians considered the Islamic State a terrorist group. This number would undoubtedly be much higher were the poll to be re-conducted today, but the jihadis in Syria and Iraq have likely calculated that a hit in public opinion is worth the short-term benefit of energizing its bloodthirsty base and the longer-term benefit of reminding the Jordanian public just how costly its government’s anti-IS policies could prove to be.

But as IS presumably understands that the Jordanian public, despite pockets of sympathy for its goals, will not under any circumstances welcome them across the border, instilling fear makes more strategic sense than seduction. Mutual deterrence is likely to persist. As tempted as the Islamic State might be to raid the vulnerable towns of northern Jordan, they understand that for now, at least, the attempt would be repelled. The Jordanians probably assess that their ability to degrade IS militarily is limited and that a costly and indecisive attempt to do so would undermine the government’s credibility at a delicate moment.

There is further reason for the Jordanian government not to overreact. The release of the gruesome video coincided with King Abdullah’s visit to the United States (the actual execution reportedly occurred on Jan. 3) and inaugural use of immolation were undoubtedly meant to achieve maximum publicity. For now, the king’s rush home from Washington seems to have avoided a public relations disaster, but the video has elicited its intended emotional response. But there is a silver lining here: The Islamic State’s ghoulish PR offensive highlights the degree to which the group has been on the defensive both militarily and psychologically since its recent defeat in Kobani. Violence for violence’s sake plays a key role in maintaining the Islamic State’s credibility with its own followers. It should be understood in such terms rather than seen as a fundamental shift in the organization’s immediate intentions toward Jordan. Jordanians would therefore be unwise to take the bait.

This tragic episode, like the murders of other hostages, is unlikely to have a far-reaching effect on the broader campaign against Islamic State. Although we now know that Lt. Kasasbeh’s December 2014 capture prompted the United Arab Emirates to disengage from the coalition, Jordan is not following suit, as its airstrikes have made clear. Ultimately, what Jordan does or does not do in response is important less for what it means for the broader anti-IS struggle and more for how it will play domestically. From Washington’s perspective, this underscores the degree to which the war against Islamic State is truly still America’s war.


Steven Simon is a Research Analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and Professor of the Practice of International Relations at Colby. He served on the National Security Council in the Clinton and Obama administrations.

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