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As public cries for vengeance, Jordan talks of wider intervention in Syria (+video)

A visit by Jordan's King Abdullah to the mourning tent for Lt. Kassasbeh, the pilot murdered by the Islamic State, turned into a pro-war rally, a dramatic turn in public sentiment toward the US-led coalition.

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Grief here over the Islamic State’s brutal killing of a Jordanian pilot has given way to calls for war, with Jordanian officials dropping hints of a wider Jordanian effort in Syria.

A visit Thursday by King Abdullah II to the mourning tent of the fallen pilot, Lt. Muath Kassasbeh, quickly escalated into a pro-war rally, with young men pledging their “blood and soul” to wage war against the Islamic State (IS).

“Muath was not the first martyr and will not be the last martyr for this country,” said Mohammed Kassasbeh, the pilot’s cousin, who declared his desire to join Jordan’s fight during the King’s visit. “We are at war and we are all prepared to fight.”

The sentiments represented a dramatic reversal of what had been growing opposition to participation in the US-led air fight against IS, including among the pilot’s family members, and Jordan has successfully turned rage over the pilot’s graphic death into a rallying cry for even greater military commitment – and sacrifice.

On Thursday Jordanian war planes reportedly carried out strikes against IS targets in Syria, then flew over Lt. Kassasbeh’s village after returning to Jordanian air space in what officials described as a “victory lap.”

The declaration marked a departure for Jordan, which had up until Thursday refused to detail its role in US-led airstrikes

King Abdullah has talked tough about his country’s retaliation against the Islamic State upon returning home from the United States Wednesday, telling a group of senior generals that Jordan will “be on the lookout for these criminals and hit them in their own homes.”

Jordan’s execution early Wednesday of Al Qaeda in Iraq members Saijda Rishawi and Ziyad Karbouli, both sentenced to death years ago, did little to quell the growing public clamor for vengeance. The pair's release had been sought by IS in exchange for sparing Kassabeh's life - though most evidence points to his murder being carried out in early January.

Officials point to IS threats against other Jordanian pilots in the graphic video of Kassasbeh being burned alive, and its publishing Wednesday of satellite images of the pilots’ homes and an offer of a 100 golden-dinar-bounty, as an official declaration of war.

'Next logical step'

Jordanian officials and members of Parliament described direct military intervention in Syria – including the dispatch of ground-troops – as the  “logical” Jordanian response.

“The Islamic State declared war on Jordan, its pilots, and security,” says Jawad Anani, a Jordanian senator and former foreign minister. “We are going to see a military escalation, and the dispatch of ground forces is the next logical step.”

State-run media have floated the idea of intervention in Syria – a common practice to gauge public opinion – in what in what is being framed as Jordan’s “right to defend its territory.”

“Jordan is now engaged in two wars, one against extremism at home and against the Islamic State abroad,” says Maher Abu Tair, a political analyst and columnist for the state-run Ad Dustour newspaper, who wrote this week of the growing possibility of a Jordanian venture in Syria.

“Jordan may have to intervene in Syria, particularly southern Syria, to prevent the formation of a Taliban state at its doorstep.”

Officials compared the current “turning point” in public sentiment to the reaction to the 2005 Al Qaeda triple hotel bombings, which killed about 60 people and fed wider support for Jordan’s war on terror. Rishawi was one of the hotel attackers, but her suicide belt failed to explode.

Growing threat perception

“The Islamic State has made a very huge error ­– instead of dividing Jordan they have united it, and support for war,” says Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister and a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

For six months, Jordan has cracked down at home on IS, jailing more than 100 alleged supporters and tightening its borders.

More than 1,500 Jordanians are estimated to have joined the ranks of the IS, with dozens rising to leadership positions, bringing with them intimate knowledge of Jordanian society and potential security weaknesses.

With the IS intelligence department issuing the names of Jordanian pilots and satellite images of their homes and calling on their followers to carry out attacks, observers and officials say Amman’s worst fears of a homegrown threat were realized.

“The Islamic State has the ability to reach into Jordan, and the military campaign in Syria has become a preemptive war, the first line of defense,” says Hassan Abu Haniya, an Amman-based expert on jihadist movements.

By directly threatening the IS leadership, officials say Jordan has made it clear it aims to strike the group at the heart of its operations, hitting the IS leadership before they strike first.

Jordanian special forces

The Jordan Armed Forces boast over 110,000 active personnel, including an elite Royal Special Operations Force that numbers in the thousands, has trained along US forces, and leads the way in regional anti-terror capabilities.

Jordan has devoted an undisclosed number of F-16 fighter jets to the coalition air raids, carrying out dozens of bombing runs in northern Syria.

With the US reluctant to put boots on the ground, and the lack of strong special forces among other Arab states, many analysts long believed that should the coalition commit ground forces, Jordanians would lead the way.

“When we look in the region there are no other ground forces that can be committed other than Jordanian. If the time should arrive, it would most likely be Jordanian forces,” says Samih Maaytah, former minister of media affairs and managing director of the state-run Al Rai newspaper.

Jordanian officials have been vague on the type of military action they will take against the Islamic State, promising an “earth-shattering” and “relentless” military campaign.

According to a senior military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the leading scenario for Jordan is the use of special operations forces to push the Islamic State from its strongholds in northern Syria. He didn't say how many soldiers are being considered, with current estimates being that they might number in “the hundreds.”

Southern Syria buffer zone

Another scenario being mulled in Amman is greater training and assistance to the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group that fights both Bashar al-Assad and IS and has some support from the US, to create a “buffer-zone” in southern Syria free of jihadis.

“A key part of Jordan’s external war are the moderate Syrian opposition forces. They will be relied upon to keep the Islamic State at bay,” Mr. Abu Tair said.

Jordan has long been used as a strategic hub for the FSA, with the Jordanians providing logistical and intelligence cooperation to the band of army defectors. Forces in the south along the Jordanian border number some 20,000, according to FSA officers, and have succeeded in keeping both Syrian regime forces and the IS at bay.

However, pledges of support, training and arms have not materialized for the rebel army, and the FSA is struggling.

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