A Field Guide to Jordan's Battle Against ISIS

Thursday, February 5, 2015

There are few nations in the Middle East, perhaps aside from Morocco (a bit of prejudice here), that is as blessed with such decent people and respected leadership as Jordan. It is a vulnerable, but stable desert kingdom constantly defying the forces arrayed against it. Jordan's boundless generosity has provided a safe haven for the human tide of refugees that have been thrust upon it from war-ravaged Syria and Iraq. A nation poor in natural resources, Jordan nevertheless is an oasis of dependability in a Levantine desert seeming devoid of anything but.

King Hussein of Jordan -- one of the truly great leaders of the modern Arab world and father of the current monarch, King Abdullah, described his nation this way:

"Jordan has a strange, haunting beauty and a sense of timelessness. Dotted with the ruins of empires once great, it is the last resort of yesterday in the world of tomorrow. I love every inch of it."

I have spent much time in Jordan, and I can attest to King Hussein's portrayal of his nation.

Formerly known as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Jordan's ruling clan is known as the Hashim, who trace their ancestry from Hashim ibn 'Abd Manaf the great-grandfather of the Prophet Mohammed. During World War I, largely at the instigation of T. E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia), Abd Manaf's decendant, Sharif Hussein bin Ali, rebelled against the rule of the Ottomans during the famous 1916 Arab Revolt.

Sharif Hussein had five sons, one of whom was Abdullah, who became the first king of the modern nation state of Jordan, when it became independent in 1946. Abdullah, King Hussein's grandfather, the current monarch's great grandfather, was assassinated by a Palestinian in Jerusalem in 1952.

When he inherited the Hashemite throne in 1999 upon the death of his father, King Hussein, Crown Prince Abdullah was 37 years old. Now 53, King Abdullah II has deftly steered his impoverished nation from one crisis to the next -- now, he faces his greatest challenge: the threat ISIS poses to Jordan.

Until ISIS brutally immolated Jordanian Royal Air Force pilot Lieutenant Kasabeh, few Americans had heard much of the Hashemite kingdom. Yet, Jordan is the poster child for what passes as a steadfast, dependable American Arab ally in the Middle East -- no easy task at all wedged by trouble on so many sides.    

With inadequate supplies of water, energy, or other natural resources, Jordan is extraordinarily dependent on foreign aid. Of its 8 million citizens, almost 2 million are either descendants of or are U.N. registered Palestinian refugees. Add to that another 1 million Iraqi refugees, plus another 800,000 Syrian refugees barely subsisting in squalid, frozen refugees camps on Jordan's northern Syrian border.

As Jordan plots its retaliation against ISIS, let us not forget that Jordan has been waging a lonely battle against Islamic radicalism for decades. Ever since Abu Musab Al Zarqawi -- the Jordanian-born terrorist godfather of ISIS -- commenced his savage campaign to overthrow the Hashemite monarchy after returning from Afghanistan in 1999, and plotted the 2005 trifecta hotel attacks in Amman, Jordan has uncovered numerous homegrown plots by homegrown radicals to commit acts of terror. Internal Islamic radical plots against the government keep Jordan's terrific internal intelligence service busy 24/7.

Now, ISIS and Jordan are locked in a life and death struggle. According to the Gatestone Institute, Jordanian political analyst Oraib al-Rantawi stated back in June 2014 "We in Jordan cannot afford the luxury of just waiting and monitoring the ISIS terrorists see Jordan's Western-backed King Abdullah as an enemy of Islam and an infidel, and have publicly called for his execution. ISIS terrorists recently posted a video on YouTube in which they threatened to "slaughter" Abdullah, whom they denounced as a "tyrant." Some of the terrorists who appeared in the video were Jordanian citizens who tore up their passports in front of the camera and vowed to launch suicide attacks inside the kingdom.

In fact, ISIS gained a foothold on the Jordan-Iraq border in November, 2014 when they destroyed at least six Jordanian border control posts. The attacks, which Jordan's army has yet to confirm, marked the first time since June, 2014 that ISIS sent terrorists to begin dismantling the geographic border between Iraq and Jordan. King Abdullah has been on the phone to President Obama several times in the past year pleading with the U.S. to help prevent Jordan from becoming the next front line in ISIS' territorial designs.

But until LT Kasabeh's execution this week Jordanians were divided about their nation's role in Operation Inherent Resolve.  Jordan being a majority Sunni nation (98 percent), there is broad support within Jordan against Syria's Shiite leader, Bashar al Assad, whose regime is creating much of the havoc that Jordanians are experiencing within their homeland. Many also fear a backlash of domestic terrorism, and the growing financial strains on the Kingdom. Moreover, Jordan fears that its Palestinian population would destabilize the regime as tensions mount over Israeli encroachments in East Jerusalem. Fortunately, these tensions have (temporarily) abated, and Jordan returned its ambassador to Israel this week.

However, the death of its valiant pilot apparently has united the nation. So now Jordan stands face to face against ISIS.

What more can the United States and our allies do to come to the rescue of our beleaguered ally?

First, the American people need to be better educated so they can appreciate the sacrifices and support Jordanians have provided the U.S. over the past decades. A few more words of support from President Obama and from Congressional leaders are important efforts that merit consideration. Jordan is already receiving considerable foreign and military assistance, but its 85 combat aircraft cannot sustain, much less carry indefinitely the lion's share of the so-called Arab coalition air campaign contribution against ISIS.

All the more reason why the Obama Administration needs to get off the dime and quit dragging its feet providing critical aircraft parts, night-vision equipment and precision munitions to Jordan.  How painful it is that just on the day ISIS executed its pilot, King Abdullah met in Washington before cutting his U.S. visit short with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and pleaded for their help to break this logjam -- caused by insufferable State Department bureaucrats who don't know the difference between red tape and red lines.

All 26 members of the Senate Armed Services Committee signed a letter to Secretaries Kerry and Hagel imploring them to urgently resolve the bureaucratic impasses impeding military support to Jordan. If that is bipartisanship, I don't know what is!

Second, King Abdullah has earned a strong vote of support where it matters from the United States -- in his nation's pocketbook. The Obama Administration announced during the King's visit a $340 million increase  to $1 billion in foreign aid for 2015-2017 -- up from $660 million.  Bravo. But it is in the hands of Congress to also get off the dime and get the money appropriated ASAP. And for all our vaunted NATO allies' coalition participation, the U.S. should be kicking European NATO members who have not placed their own assets at risk against ISIS to kick in more foreign assistance to Jordan.

Third, it is a sad afterthought that a failure to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has a direct impact on Jordan's internal stability. More than half of Jordan's citizens originate from either the West Bank or from Israel during its war of independence. The Hashemite monarchy has long considered a solution to the conflict an existential matter of the nation's survival -- if only Benjamin Netanyahu had the strategic "sechel" to better appreciate how much his short-sighted policies poison Jordan's long-term stability - a stability that Israel's security is dependent upon.

Fourth, while Jordan is one of the few Arab nations to have a Free Trade Agreement with the U.S., it ranks 73rd among U.S. trading partners. Jordan exported $1 billion in apparel and clothing to the U.S. in 2012. As with any other Arab nation with a population bulge of unemployed youth, Jordan is no exception  -- the raw ingredient feeding Islamic State's recruitment drives.  It is not enough to provide U.S. Government aid to Jordan.  The King has invested heavily providing medical technology service training opportunities for Jordan's youth...and more public/private partnerships in health care services encouraged by the U.S. Commerce Department would give the King a much need boost at home.

Finally, given Jordan's expanded anti-ISIS air campaign, the White House must stop walking on eggshells into the ISIS battlefield. In December, the United Arab Emirates -- another key coalition ally -- suspended airstrikes against ISIS because the U.S. refused to improve its search and rescue efforts closer to the battlefield to extricate downed pilots. The back-channel dispute has threatened the UAE's air support at a crucial time for the U.S. air campaign effort. If President Obama wants to continue to tout how effective the coalition air campaign has been against ISIS, he cannot have his cake and eat it, too. Arab allies, like Jordan and the UAE, are putting their nations and their pilots at risk for a cause that is as important to them as it is to us. The least we can do is to provide the tactical close in search and rescue support necessary to provide them tangible evidence that our word is as good as our propaganda.

Before he died, King Hussein said: "Jordan seeks to play only one role, that of a model state. It is our aim to set an example for our Arab brethren, not one that they need follow but one that will inspire them to seek a higher, happier destiny within their own borders." Jordan may not be the perfect example of what a future, democratic Arab nation may be, but it sure has demonstrated how fine a path it is on as a nation Americans can be proud of.
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