One of the things I hate about social media is that sometimes you refresh to get the latest news and confront things you cannot unsee. As much as I avoid the pornography of violence that is ISIL’s signature, I cannot shake the image of 1st Lt Muath Kasasbeh standing in a cage, about to be engulfed in flames. But the most incredible bit of this barbaric snuff film was not the method of his death, but how he faced it: feet planted firmly on the ground, back straight, and hands raised in prayer. You could almost hear the words of the shehadeh on his lips; there is no God but God….
In the defining essence of the word, 26 year old Muath Kasasbeh died a martyr; a martyr for his country, his King and for God. And may God have mercy….
Right now, the Hashemite Kingdom is in a state of collective shock over the revelation of not just Kasasbeh’s death but the sheer horror of its calculated spectacle. However as the shock turns to rage, the question for all of Jordan is: what’s next? Where do we go from here?
Well, it depends….
A former foreign minister once told me that policy decisions in the Kingdom are determined by three vectors: the international, the regional and the local. These are almost always pulling against each other and Jordan must tread carefully in order to neither let one fall too slack or pull so tightly that the line may snap.
By all indications on Jordan TV, the Kingdom is preparing for battle. However, whether that battle is from within or without depends on whether the regime can maintain its balancing act, whether it stumbles or which end of the line is first to let go.
Right now the pressure in on the domestic scene, but the regime cannot afford to ignore the realities and the dangers in the international and regional scene.
Jordan’s decision to join the US lead coalition was clearly driven by the international and the regional scene. The current state of the chaos on Jordan’s borders makes the days when Jordan only had to worry about the dangers of being caught between Iraq and a hard place. With conflicts bearing down from the north and east and with the situation deteriorating to the west there is, quite literally, danger all around. Moreover, since 2003 – if not before, 1991 to be precise – Jordan can no longer balance friend against friend and foe against foe to keep its borders quiet.
Jordan has thrown its lot with the global super power and the regional hegemon because it has no other viable choice. So with upwards of 1,000,000 refugees within its borders, panoply of extremists groups slithering through them, and an ominously resilient Assad, Jordan does not have the wiggle room to decline the invitation to join the coalition.
The challenge is that the public is not convinced whether the fight against ISIL is truly Jordan’s fight or America’s. Yes, what they have done to the Kurds in Kobanni and the Yazidis on Sinjar is an outrage, but why do we go to war for them and not the Palestinians?
While there is grudging acceptance of the geo-political reality, the regime must consciously and continuously reaffirm their cooperation with the United States and Israel is done in the interest of Jordan. It is not that Jordanians are keen on ISIL – in fact as this poll shows 67% have a very negative view of ISIL. It also shows that most have a favorable opinion of Hamas. This is not surprising – Jordanians have traditionally cheered those who resist Israeli aggression whether their stripes are Islamist, nationalist, leftist or Lebanese Shitte.
Ironically, it is easier to sell Jordanians on the merit of keeping the peace treaty than joining the fight against ISIL. The treaty is seen as constraining Israel’s ability to take actions the jeopardize Jordan’s interest. Joining the coalition against ISIL, however, could expose Jordan to even greater risks.
And, Kasasbeh’s horrific demise has made these risks manifest in the most primal of ways.
In the short run, the regime’s careful moves and ISIL’s mind-bending cruelty has tipped the scales in favor of staying with the coalition. National TV is running continuous programming designed to reinforce the message that Kasasbeh died in the line of duty and in defense of ‘God, King and Nation.’ Facebook is filled with memes declaring Kasasbeh #2475 in ‘caravan’ of martyrs that go back to the founding of the state. (In Jordan, martyr is the word used for a fallen soldier). Interviews with government officials and sympathetic public intellectuals are interspersed with war films with the voice of the late King Hussein booming from the background.
Moreover, the brinksmanship over the past week has appeared moderately successful in keeping the public’s rage focused on ISIL and not the decision to join the coalition. The offer to release Sajeda Rishawi was done to demonstrate the regime would spare no effort in saving the life of the pilot—including actions that would put them at odds with US official policy. Similarly, her swift execution is a step to affirm the regime is sharing in the people’s white hot anger.
Moreover, the pilot’s father – Saif al Kasasbeh – has taken to the air to demand ISIL’s annihilation. Whatever passed in their private meeting at the palace last week, the father was assured His Majesty King Abdallah II was doing all in his power to save his son and uphold his end of the social contract.
For the moment, Jordan will rally behind the King. They will do so in honor of their most recent martyr and in deference to the wishes of his father. The unknown is how long this moment of unity will continue. The voices of dissent are already appearing on social media and in the street. Whether they gain traction depends on how the regime manages to reinforce this fragile moment of national consensus.
Jordan is preparing for war.
Ominously, it is still unclear which battle they are going to fight.