Much of the world has been gratified by the robust response of Jordan to ISIS’s horrific incineration of Jordanian pilot 1st Lt. Muadh al-Kasasbeh in early January. King Abdullah carried through promptly on his threat to execute jihadi prisoners whose release ISIS had demanded, and almost immediately began bombing ISIS positions in Syria. Social media erupted with comparisons between the king, looking businesslike in camouflage utilities, and the feckless occupant of the White House (who almost instantly proceeded to dig himself deeper by complaining about Christians at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday morning).
But what will King Abdullah’s promise to “battle until his military runs out of fuel and bullets” really amount to? Can Jordan defeat ISIS?
No. I made the point a couple of days ago that no one but the United States can put together a military operation capable of defeating ISIS. Our president isn’t up to this task, to be sure; indeed, no one in his administration could do it. (I urge you not to strain at this one, because it’s not worth it. From the military brass level down, we still have leadership capable of executing this task, but between that level and the president, there is, quite literally, no one in office who could do it. There are a number of people, including the national security advisor and the secretary of state, whose policy tendencies would actively make it impossible.)
Keep that in mind in the coming days. The latest report is that Obama is about to ask Congress for military authority – a new AUMF – to go after ISIS. This will not mean that the U.S. will act decisively against ISIS, any more than Obama’s previous pirouettes and capers around Iraq and Syria have meant that we were taking decisive action to defeat ISIS. Remember that Obama’s objectives in both countries have been wholly defensive from the get-go; he has never been willing to take territory from ISIS, even though that’s the only way to actually defeat ISIS.
We now have an emerging situation, in fact, in which it appears that ISIS is way inside Obama’s “OODA loop,” and is seeking to preempt both Obama and Iran by opening a new front in Jordan.
Opening a front in Jordan
ISIS actually threatened quite specifically to do this more than six months ago, just at the time when the ISIS jihadis’ forces had surged to the outskirts of Baghdad, after taking Mosul and gaining the advantage in the Euphrates corridor to the west. Pushback from the Kurds, and from Iraqi national forces – combined with coalition air strikes, which began in early August – has preoccupied ISIS in the months since. And inside Jordan, the king has taken stringent measures to suppress ISIS supporters there, who are relatively numerous (see here and here for more on both topics).
But Charles Krauthammer was right when he warned on Tuesday that Jordan is being drawn into a fight the king can’t win – a fight that has the strong potential to destabilize Jordan, to ISIS’s advantage:
Jordan is…[a]…stable regime yet it’s the weakest [in the region]. It has no oil and yet for the last 70 years it has had only three rulers but has had huge divisions internally. It’s got a lot of Muslim Brotherhood. It has some ISIS sympathizers. I think the objective here was to draw Jordan into a war where it was a peripheral player. …
And now we see the result — Jordan being drawn into a direct war with ISIS is not a good thing for us. Jordan will not defeat ISIS on its own and wouldn’t defeat ISIS even if it had some coalition partners. …[T]he king of Jordan is on the spot. He had to do something intense, important, punishing and that will draw him. He’s got refugees from Palestine and of course Syria, Iraq. He has a lot of internal dissent, which we have seen over the years. This is a way to stir the cauldron in a country that is stable, was stable, but is easily destabilized. And that’s what ISIS is after.
The question, though, is why now? All things being equal – ISIS having recently suffered a big if not game-changing loss in Kobani, Syria, while its fronts in Iraq remain comparatively stable – why did ISIS choose this week to release the video of 1st Lt. Al-Kasasbeh being burned to death? They’ve had it since the first week of January. They chose to deploy it, and thus provoke Jordan, on Tuesday, 3 February.
From ISIS’s point of view, the biggest thing that happened in the month between executing the Jordanian pilot and publishing the video was almost certainly the appearance of an extraordinarily high-level Iranian reconnaissance team in the Golan Heights on 18 January, and the IDF attack on that team, which also included high-level Hezbollah operatives. That attack was followed with a retaliatory attack by Hezbollah on an IDF detachment operating near the border, seeming to demonstrate the potential for escalation.
As I outlined at the last link, ISIS is increasingly invested in the Golan on its own account, having acquired in December the loyalty of an anti-Assad jihadi group occupying the tactically significant transit route to the Quneitra border crossing. The Golan area is shaping up to be a venue for competition between ISIS and Iran – which was predictable before, given its geography and proximity to Israel, but now is actually happening.
The second biggest thing for ISIS in January was probably the Houthi coup in Yemen, backed by Iran and signifying a major geostrategic door opening for Iran’s regional plans. (The Houthis, on Friday, formally announced that they are dissolving parliament and taking over the government. It’s done.)
ISIS’s vision is grandiose, to be sure, but it is systematic and strategic, not hallucinatory. ISIS doesn’t just ooze around like a single-celled flagellate driven to search for food. It has been clear from the beginning that ISIS has territorial ambitions and works off of a map. We should be looking, at every juncture, for coherent intentions and reasoning, and that’s what I see here. ISIS’s eye is on the regional advantage quickly accruing to Iran.
I outlined a while back a strategy for surrounding and annihilating ISIS, one that the U.S., with a coalition, could bring off. Iran can’t bring off anything on that heroic scale, but Iran could effectively surround and frustrate ISIS. And in the near term, the status of Jordan is the key to ISIS’s ability to withstand such strategic opposition, and fight against it effectively.
What does ISIS want to do? Put Jordan “in play.” Knock Jordan off of her equilibrium point and make this internally divided country a party to the turmoil in Syria and Iraq. We can look for ISIS sympathizers to start blowing things up inside Jordan, and soon. ISIS doesn’t need to actually make good, just yet, on its threat to assassinate King Abdullah (see Gatestone Institute link above), to nevertheless create internal instability that will undermine the fragile social peace and put the king on the defensive in his own country.
Dimensions of an ISIS approach
That will be ISIS’s calculation, at any rate. There are three particular dimensions of such a strategy to consider: three things ISIS hopes to foment and put in play. One is complicating the picture for the United States. We have had forces hosted in Jordan for some time now – not in large numbers, but the geographic convenience of Jordan has been indispensable to us.
I don’t believe ISIS has a simplistic, linear intention to drive us out of Jordan, so much as to force us to escalate little countermeasures gradually – just enough to be annoying to others – and to triangulate in the kind of way that has driven our erstwhile Free Syrian Army clients to defect, in the last six months, to ISIS and Al Qaeda. At this point, ISIS counts on Obama to not surprise anyone by suddenly growing a backbone. On that basis, he can still be useful.
The second dimension is flanking Iran, particularly in the Golan. It’s a small area, but it’s the pivot point of the entire conflict, as it’s shaping up. Right now, the Golan is the approach to Israel that is truly up for grabs. ISIS’s position there is not a strong one; if Iran, Assad, and Hezbollah combine forces, they can excluded ISIS and rule the mountain passes between Syria and Israel.
But if ISIS can throw Jordan into turmoil, ISIS and a cadre of Sunni-Arab jihadi sympathizers inside Jordan have the natural advantage in opening a new front against Israel. That would accomplish multiple objectives, including forcing Iran to deal with a flanking challenge in her prize Golan area.
This brings up the third dimension of ISIS’s strategic thinking. ISIS doesn’t plan to mount a conventional military attack on Israel from Jordan. ISIS wants to draw Israel into Jordan’s turmoil – just as Iran wants to draw Israel into Syria’s turmoil. Iran and ISIS both want to sucker Israel, as a means of self-defense, into attacking Arab territory. (The reason is that such a move would be expected to inflame Muslim nations across the region.)
Israel wouldn’t do this to attack King Abdullah’s nation of Jordan, but to neutralize other threats in Jordan. The principle is the same as the one Iran wants to exploit from the Syrian side of the Golan. That said, there is a difference with Jordan, which is that there has been real discussion of the possibility that Israel might act to “defend” Jordan: intervene militarily to support the king and ensure the country doesn’t descend into chaos.
The point here is not whether you, I, or another distant Western observer thinks this is likely. Nor is the point what Israeli sources say about it. The point is what ISIS thinks Israel (and by implication Jordan) might do, in extremis. Because if ISIS has anything to say about it, extremis is coming.
Alert readers may remember that the Obama administration actually made a point of this possibility – that Israel might intervene in Jordan – in briefings to Congress in June. It was stupid and apparently deliberate to make such a point of it that it was bound to get into the media, but that’s what the Obama administration does. ISIS has had that data point for quite as long as the rest of us, and it feeds into the conditions in which ISIS planners make their calculations.
Another data point ISIS had, very possibly just as it was deciding to release the video of Al-Kasasbeh burning to death, was the report that John Kerry is working with the Iranians on a “deal” to give Iran a free hand in Iraq and Syria. News of this impending deal was originally reported on Israel Army Radio early on Tuesday, 3 February (and later corroborated independently by AP). ISIS would draw a couple of conclusions from that news: one, that Iran would be emboldened and empowered by it, and two, that the U.S. in fact may be preparing to quietly throw our weight behind Iran.*
Both conclusions would mean to ISIS that it’s time to make a big move. We can hope the current appearance of national unity in Jordan holds. But we can’t count on it.
*Regarding the Obama administration’s incessant revelation of its plans and assumptions, I’m often reminded of this passage in James Goldman’s play The Lion in Winter, when King Henry II of England has baited young Philippe (Philip) II of France into revealing his strategic plans on the continent.
I’d love to have a video clip for you, but copyright issues seem to get the videos people try to post on YouTube removed. So here’s an image of Peter O’Toole (Henry II) and Timothy Dalton (Philip II) from a different scene in the 1968 screen adaptation, to go with a passage from the script that many consider a favorite classic.
(Act I, Scene 6)
Henry: Well, things look a little bleak for Henry, don’t they? You’ll say yes to Richard when he comes… arms, soldiers, anything he asks.
Philip: I’d be foolish not to.
Henry: Yeah. And withdraw it all before the battle ever started.
Philip: Wouldn’t you, in my place?
Henry: Why fight Henry when his sons will do it for you?
Philip: Yes, exactly.
Henry: – You’ve got promise, lad. That’s first-class thinking.
Philip: Thank you, sir.
Henry: Good night.
Philip: Good night? You’re going? We haven’t settled anything.
Henry: We open Christmas presents at noon. Till then.
Philip: You can’t be finished with me.
Henry: Oh, but I am. It’s been most satisfactory.
Philip: What’s so satisfactory?
Henry: Winning is. I did just win. Surely you noticed.
Philip: Not a thing. You haven’t won a damn thing.
Henry: Hmm. I found out the way your mind works and the kind of man you are. I know your plans and expectations. You’ve burbled every bit of strategy you’ve got. I know exactly what you will do and exactly what you won’t. And I’ve told you exactly nothing.
To these aged eyes, boy, that’s what winning looks like!