The ongoing drama of a Jordanian pilot held hostage by the Islamic State has escalated into a political crisis for King Abdullah II, threatening the position of a stalwart US ally and leading player in the coalition against the jihadist group.
Jordanians have been gripped by the detention of Lt. Muath Kassasbeh, whose fighter jet crashed near Raqqa, Syria on Dec. 24.
A sunset deadline passed Thursday with the government refusing to pull the trigger on a prisoner swap with the jihadist movement, saying IS had failed to provide proof Lt. Kassasbeh was still alive and well.
Rather than blame IS for the protracted hostage crisis, the public at large and members of the pilot’s family have turned on the government. They are hitting the streets and faulting Amman for putting Jordanians into harm’s way in a war they say is not their own.
The finger-pointing has given rise to something even stronger: a full-throated antiwar movement.
Rallies in solidarity with Kassasbeh have quickly turned into anti-coalition protests, with participants denouncing the US and its allies as “cowards” who are “using Jordanian blood” to fuel their war against the Islamic State.
Protesters have even gone as far as challenging King Abdullah himself – rallying outside the gates of the Royal Palace and demanding “Abdullah, why are we fighting?” or resorting to more personal jabs such as “Abdullah II, where are you?”
The anti-coalition movement has also flourished online. Activists have gathered under an Arabic hashtag on Twitter that translates as #NotOurWar, organizing protests, calling on Jordanian authorities to withdraw from the war against IS, and detailing the civilian deaths caused by coalition bombing runs.
“The hostage crisis has turned public opinion against the war, which was already unpopular to begin with,” says Oraib Rintawi, political analyst and director of the Amman-based Al Quds Center of Political Studies.
Yet perhaps the biggest threat to Jordan’s role in the coalition is posed by Kassasbeh’s family itself.
The pilot’s father, Safi Kassasbeh, has emerged as a sympathetic figure and victim of the conflict. The family has called on Jordan to withdraw from the coalition and has openly questioned coalition leadership over the details surrounding Kassasbeh’s crash-landing.
Tribal support for monarchy
Kassasbeh hails from the East Bank Bararsheh tribe in the southern province of Karak, the backbone of the Hashemite monarchy’s tribal support, whose members fill the ranks of the military and security services.
Should the Karak tribes move to withdraw their sons from military service or boycott the coalition in protest – as some have threatened in private – the move would cripple the Jordanian Armed Forces and its military and logistical support for the coalition.
In addition to pledging its air force, Jordan has allowed American warplanes to use its airstrips and military bases near its eastern borders as launching pads for strikes in neighboring Syria and Iraq.
The US and its allies have relied heavily on Jordanian intelligence and Amman’s ability to extract information from returning Islamic State fighters, which according to security officials have become a “huge source” of intelligence for coalition operations.
Despite the growing public dissent, Jordan shows little sign of backing down from its war against the Islamic State. According to government sources, Jordanian jets have continued to participate in bombing runs.
King vows to stay the course
Abdullah has pledged Jordan’s commitment to fighting religious extremism in public speeches both within Jordan and abroad. In two separate summits with Jordan’s central and southern tribes last month, the monarch sought to convince Jordan’s tribes that the US-led campaign against IS was indeed “our war.”
The king has intervened personally in the Kassasbeh hostage crisis, reassuring the pilot’s family while following up on government’s efforts to release him.
Yet as the pilot hostage crisis drags on, anti-war activists say they will not stop until they force the king’s hand.
“We won’t stop at saving Muath, we will continue until we get all the sons of Jordan out of harm’s way,” said Mohammed Abdullah, one of several dozen protesters outside the Royal Palace late Wednesday.
“Jordan will never again spend its blood for the wars of the West.”