Is the war on IS really Jordan's to fight?

Is the war on IS really Jordan's to fight?
A debate is underway in Jordan as to whether the war against the Islamic State group is really their cause. This discussion is a good thing in and of itself.
6 min read
29 Dec, 2014
Jordanian troops are on high alert on the border with Iraq [Anadolu]
The reported capture of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasba by the Islamic State group has sparked debate in this polarised country. Kasasba's plane crashed near the Syrian city of Raqqa while he was taking part in US-led airstrikes against the group (IS, formerly known as ISIS).

"We are now in a state of war. If you are not on the side of the homeland then you are a traitor," commented one citizen.

This brief comment reflects both the popular mood and the official mood. While Jordanians remain divided over their country's involvement in the international anti-IS coalition, they are united in sympathy for the captured pilot, and this has brought Jordanians together.

Opinion surveys suggest an overwhelming majority are opposed to the IS group, seeing it as a terrorist organisation and a threat to national security.
We are now in a state of war. If you are not on the side of the homeland then you are a traitor.

But Jordan's announcement of joining the international coalition against the IS group have provoked accusations of treason against officials here.

With us or against us

Hopes had been high that the air campaign would not mean Jordanian casualties. But Kasasba's crash has re-ignited the debate, this time accompanied by a political and media frenzy, and anyone daring to criticise the war has been bullied. But far from generating broad popular and political support as it was supposed to, the war has polarised Jordan.

Sources close to the government have presented a coherent argument for Jordan's participation based on the idea of a "preventive war". The IS group, which is expanding in a country neighbouring Jordan and has almost reached its northern and eastern borders, is a real threat to Jordanian security.

The argument, therefore, is that it would be best for Jordan to weaken the IS in the group's heartland before it could become more entrenched, which would mean Jordan would have to deal with a larger and more potent threat in the future.

There is also growing sympathy for the IS group among Salafist-Jihadists in Jordan. Some figures put the number of Jordanians fighting in the ranks of IS group and the Nusra Front as high as 2,000, while up to 300 suspects are on trial in State Security courts on charges of promoting and recruiting for the radical group.

Hundreds of others are on trial for attempting to join these and similar groups, or have been arrested on their return from Syria and Iraq.

These are the facts on which the official Jordanian narrative relies, to emphasise the legitimacy of Jordan's participation in the war. "This is our war," this narrative says, and "we" have more of a stake in it than the United States and the West. The Arabs, the argument goes, must not shirk their responsibilities in the face of terrorism and extremism, which threatens them most directly.

Military moves

Jordan is aware the IS is the product of a real Sunni crisis in Iraq and Syria, and that its strength is the result of internal and regional sectarian mistakes and policies. Jordan's approach includes an alliance with Sunni tribes in Iraq and Syria against IS, and Jordanian support for Sunni demands in the political process. But despite this, the Jordanian priority is clear: to confront IS as a real, direct, fundamental threat.

Moreover, the military actions that have been taken have gone far beyond a consensual political approach that could supposedly produce the desired political solution.

As a result, the war on the IS has become the primary means, and previous talk about the role of the Syrian regime and Iranian meddling in enabling the rise of the IS, adopting a sectarian discourse that feeds on the plight of Sunnis and their grand tragedy, has receded.

On the other side of the divide, among those who oppose the IS politically and ideologically but have reservations about the current war, the narrative they have adopted relies on the premise that what is happening in Syria and Iraq is actually a proxy war involving local, regional, and international belligerents.

This side argues that things are more complicated than they seem. They point to Shia militias guided by Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, fighting Sunni militias. They highlight the varying support of various countries for various armed groups. They agree with former US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, who admitted the war against IS serves the administration of Bashar al-Assad - even though Jordan, Arab countries and states across the world have declared their support for the Syrian opposition against Assad. This has made the Arab and Western position rather contradictory.

This section of Jordanian society does not see IS in the region as an immediate threat to Jordan, and believes its rise is linked to exceptional circumstances present in Syria and Iraq, where conditions are ripe for civil and sectarian war, chaos, and total state collapse. Jordan, they say, presents a radically different situation.

Freedom of opinion and expression must be respected, there is no room for bullying or accusations of treason in this debate.

Although the proponents of this view opposed to the war recognise support for the IS in Jordan is growing, they believe it would be a mistake - if not an actual sin - to conflate the internal and regional dimensions of the IS problem.

They argue that dealing with the radical group internally requires a strategy different from the regional strategy, which would encompass security-based, political, cultural, and educational efforts to address the causes of the IS' rise, but that the regional dimension requires a completely different approach.

In other words, the faction opposed to the war does at the end of the day believe the "this is our war" narrative - even if it does add a "but..." at the end. They see a great deal of confusion, a lack of strategic vision, and huge contradictions in the regional and international campaign.

The importance of mutual respect

Regardless of whether Jordanians decide this is their war or not, one of the important lessons to be learned in the aftermath of the capture of Moaz al-Kasasba - and the shock it caused among the public and the damage it has done to the government - is that freedom of opinion and expression must be respected.

There is no room for bullying or accusations of treason in this debate. The war has been seriously criticised even in the US, and at the height of the Israeli war on Gaza, Israeli editorials even criticised that war.

For the thousandth time, freedom, pluralism, democracy, and a healthy climate of exchange should be our the weapon of choice against the rise of terrorist groups. After all, the internal dimension of the war on terror is fundamental, not an afterthought.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.