When Islamic State thugs burned a Jordanian pilot alive inside a cage and released a video of it Tuesday, it could have marked a historic turning point in the fight against the jihadis.
The grisly video enraged the victim’s tribe, as well as Arabs across the region. Even Jordanians who opposed their king’s participation in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State condemned the depraved killing. Prominent Muslim clerics denounced it as a gross violation of Islam.
So some pundits surmised that the video would rally Arab leaders and publics to unite in battle against the jihadis.
In theory, this sounds plausible. But without a coherent U.S. strategy to fight the Islamic State, this moment will be lost.
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There are several reasons the death of Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh should galvanize the region. For one thing, the handsome military pilot was a Muslim, so his killing resonates there far more than beheadings of Western hostages.
For another, the Islamic State overplayed its hand. It clearly intended to humiliate Jordan for joining the U.S.-led military coalition and sending planes to strike the Islamic State, while signaling to other Arab countries that they should stay out of the fight lest their pilots meet a similar fate. But the sadism of the murder — making the pilot watch as the flames lapped a trail of gasoline into the cage — inspired tribal calls for retaliation. Clerics denounced the Islamic State for having disregarded Quranic rules on the treatment of prisoners of war.
So for now, said former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher, “public opinion wants revenge — wants the government to go after the Islamic State.”
But the Jordanian government can do little more than it is already doing: participating in airstrikes against the Islamic State, sharing intelligence, and helping the United States train moderate Syrian rebels. Indeed, burdened with 1.3 million Syrian refugees, tiny Jordan needs more U.S. (and Arab) aid just to continue its current role.
Moreover, al-Kaseasbeh’s death likely won’t rally broader Arab support for the fight against the Islamic State unless the White House shows greater commitment to that struggle. A key ally in the U.S.-led coalition, the United Arab Emirates, suspended its airstrikes against the Islamic State in December, after al-Kaseasbeh was shot down. The reason: The United States hadn’t put proper assets in place in northern Iraq to rescue downed pilots. However, on Saturday, the UAE on Saturday did send a squadron of F-16 jets to Jordan.
That contradictory U.S. approach — urging its Arab allies to fight the Islamic State in the air and on the ground, but not giving them the necessary support — makes Arab governments and tribes wary of engaging the jihadis. Arabs are uncertain about what Obama wants in the region given the contradictions of American policy. This is especially true of Sunni tribes in Syria and Iraq — some of them related to Jordanian tribes — which the administration is counting on to rebel against the Islamic State.
Yet the current U.S. approach discourages Sunni tribes under the Islamic State control from taking up the fight against the jihadis. There is no American policy of engaging and coordinating tribal opposition and linking it with coalition airstrikes. Tribes that do rebel cannot match the Islamic State’s weapons (most of which were seized from U.S.-supplied depots in Iraq) and are often slaughtered.
Here are two gruesome examples: 322 members of the Albu Nimr tribe were massacred in Iraq’s Anbar province when they ran out of bullets while fighting the Islamic State in October, while 700 of Syria’s Shaitat tribe were beheaded, crucified, and shot after they revolted against the Islamic State in August. The Shaitat got no Western arms or supportive airstrikes and received scant coverage in the Western press.
So don’t expect a wider Sunni tribal revolt against the Islamic State unless the White House gets its strategy together. In Iraq, the administration is relying on a nearly defunct national army (plus the Kurds) to battle the Islamic State, while the real ground fighting is being done by Shiite militias backed by Iran.
“The Shia militias are as brutal as the Islamic State, which keeps Iraqi tribal leaders from rising against the Islamic State,” said Rick Welch, a retired colonel and Green Beret who served several tours in Iraq and is known for his expertise on Sunni tribes. The militias are often as keen to kill Sunni villagers as they are to fight the Islamic State.
Iraqi tribal leaders, said Welch, are waiting to see whether new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will be more inclusive of Sunnis and will finally arm tribal national guards to fight the Islamic State. (So far, Iran and its Iraqi Shiite proxies have nixed this, and the United States has done little to hasten the process.)
As for Syrian tribes that are willing to fight the Islamic State, Welch said he sees no U.S. strategy to aid them. He said the United States has the ability to pull together tribal leaders in Syria and Iraq and build a force that could, and wants to, fight the Islamic State. “But we have to be willing to say we’re going to do this.” Welch added. “We’re going through the motions but aren’t too serious yet.”
I agree. And that is why the burning of al-Kaseasbeh, however shocking, won’t mark a turning point in the fight against the Islamic State — unless there is a turning point in Washington first.