How pilot's capture threatens Jordan's position in Islamic State fight

Islamic State reportedly is asking a steep price for the captured pilot. Jordanians, who only narrowly support the bombing campaign, want the government to do 'whatever it takes' to get him back.

Raad Adayleh/Associated Press
Friends and relatives of Mu'ath Safi al-Kaseasbeh, a Jordanian pilot captured by the Islamic State group, gather in the town of Aey near Al Karak in southern Jordan, Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014. Islamic State militants captured the Jordanian pilot after his warplane crashed in Syria while conducting airstrikes Wednesday.

The dramatic capture of an air force pilot by Islamic State forces in Syria has forced officials to defend Jordan's role in the US-led coalition and consider releasing the country’s most reviled terrorist detainee.

Jordan's government has publicly remained mum on the status of the Jordan Armed Forces pilot, Lt. Moaz Kassasbeh, whose fighter jet crashed during a bombing run over Islamic State's (IS) stronghold of Raqqa in northern Syria early Wednesday.

Yet insiders say the hostage situation has plunged the government and King Abdullah into “crisis mode” as Amman scrambles to return its pilot safely and justify the country’s role in the anti-IS coalition before an increasingly skeptical, and deeply divided, Jordanian public.

IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has not come forward with public demands for the release of Lieutenant Kassasbeh – the first coalition fighter to fall into the hands of the jihadist group since the launch of coalition airstrikes in August.

Yet government sources and media reports say Amman has opened a flurry of negotiations with Kassasbeh’s captors through the mediation of Qatar, Iraqi Sunni tribes, and even Turkey.

For Jordan, the group’s reported asking price is steep.

According to Mohammed Shalibi, head of Jordan’s hard-line Salafist movement, which maintains strong ties with IS, the group has called for the release of IS member Ziyad Al Karbouli and Sajida Rishawi, one of the masterminds of the 2005 Amman hotel bombings.

Fear of sending wrong message

Jordan sentenced Ms. Rishawi to death in 2006 for her role in the bombings, which left more than 60 dead and some 150 injured – the majority guests at a wedding reception. The attack was carried out in the name of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to IS. Since 2007 Rishawi’s sentence has been frozen amid a Jordanian review of its use of capital punishment.

Officials worry that a swap for Rishawi would send the wrong message, especially as Jordan prides itself as leading the war against extremism in the region and boasts a long-standing policy of not negotiating with “terrorists.”

Yet by failing to return Kassasbeh home, Amman would risk losing something far greater – badly needed support for the war against IS.

Jordan has emerged as the lead Arab state in the US-led military coalition against IS. Its air force conducts near-daily bombing runs in Syria and Jordanian airfields near its eastern borders are used by British and French fighter jets to fly sorties into neighboring Iraq.

Slim support for airstrikes

Jordan’s participation in airstrikes in Iraq and Syria has proved divisive here: Opinion polls show only a slight majority in favor of the strikes, while 40 per cent view IS as a legitimate Sunni resistance movement.

The bombings have been met with calls from the Muslim Brotherhood-led opposition and even government-employed imams, who denounce the campaign as a wider “war against Islam.”

Within hours of Kassasbeh’s capture, Jordanians took to the airwaves and the Internet to express their grief and concern, launching a series of social media “We are all Moaz” campaigns on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and calling on the government to do “whatever it takes” to ensure his return.

Officials privately worry that the growing surge of grief could quickly turn into rabid opposition to the war against IS should the hostage standoff drag on or Amman fail to return Kassasbeh alive.

Daring rescue mission?

The rising domestic tensions have forced officials to mull a second, more drastic, option: a daring rescue mission in the heart of IS territory.

The scenario, which would require sending commando forces to Raqqa, is seen by many insiders as a “last resort,” but a course of action that would allow Jordan both to save face and return its pilot home.

As the hostage crisis drags on, time – and Jordan’s options – are running out.

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