A Tipping Point Toward Chaos

02/04/2015 05:22 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2015
Jordan Pix via Getty Images

The murder by militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) of a Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh is being viewed by analysts as a tipping point for mobilizing public support in the region against the forces of Islamic extremism. Prior to Lieutenant Kasasbeh's execution, public opinion in Jordan appeared to be evenly split on the issue of their nation's participation in the US-led coalition targeting Sunni Arab Islamists in Iraq and Syria.

Now, in the aftermath of the pilot's death, there seems to be a consensus among these analysts that a majority of Jordanians will rally around King Abdullah as he seeks revenge against ISIS by executing prisoners in Jordanian custody and considers expanding the role of Jordan in the anti-ISIS coalition. This may be the outcome in the short term, as passions flare in response to what most Jordanians view as a vicious act on the part of ISIS. The reaction of the Jordanian government (indeed all of the western world and much of the Middle East) has been predictable -- so predictable that one must wonder if this is precisely the outcome desired by ISIS in killing Lieutenant Kasasbeh in such a high profile fashion, and if so, why?

The Islamic State has never hidden its desire to create a Sunni Islamic Caliphate that extends over much of the territory that comprises the modern states of Iraq, Syria and Jordan (and elsewhere, as recent events in the Sinai and Libya have shown). In the minds of many who live in the region, these three nations are artificial entities, created at the whim of western imperialists in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire for the sole purpose of facilitating western economic and geopolitical ambitions at the expense of legitimate Arab nationalism and Sunni Islam. There is a growing level of resentment, especially among the ranks of young and disenfranchised males, that feeds off this perception, creating a rich pool of pre-radicalized talent from which ISIS is able to recruit.

ISIS was born from the chaos and anarchy that erupted in Iraq after the United States invaded and occupied that country, removing from power a Sunni dictator, Saddam Hussein, and replacing him with a pro-Iranian Shi'a government. ISIS was able to exploit similar chaos that engulfed Syria in 2011 during popular unrest against the government of Bashar al-Assad. Assad's government is dominated by members of a minority Shi'a sect known as the Allawites, and has close ties with Iran and the Lebanese Shi'a militia-cum-political party, Hezbollah.

In addition to playing off of the notion of historical illegitimacy of the pro-western (and anti-Sunni Islam) governments of Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has created a de facto Sunni-Shi'a sectarian conflict that, in and of itself, serves as a rallying cry for many of its recruits, undermining the legitimacy of any Sunni Arab country that joins in the anti-ISIS fight. It is in this context that Lieutenant Kasasbeh's murder must be evaluated. By goading Jordan into assuming a larger role -- perhaps even a leadership role -- in the fight against the Islamic State, ISIS may be seeking to accelerate the process of creating social divides within Jordan that could lead to the kind of internal chaos and unrest that the Islamic extremists have shown themselves so adept at exploiting.

It will be difficult for King Abdullah to control the anger unleashed by the actions of ISIS in killing Lieutenant Kasasbeh. The Lieutenant's family is from a large and influential tribe which, while proud of their relative's military service, has not spoken with one voice on the Hashemite Kingdom's policies vis-à-vis Iraq and Syria. ISIS has a long history in both Iraq and Syria of turning tribal angst to its advantage, and this may be exactly the strategy ISIS is pursuing by its gruesome actions.

There can be no doubt that what ISIS did was not an accident. Lieutenant Kasasbeh was killed on January 3, 2015 -- nearly a month before ISIS began "negotiating" a prisoner exchange involving the pilot and a would-be female suicide bomber. ISIS knew that by releasing the video of Kasasbeh's murder it would be guaranteeing the execution of its fellow Jihadists at the hands of the Jordanians.

The Islamic State also knew that the resulting public outrage in Jordan, especially amongst the influential al-Kasasbeh tribe, would push Jordan toward accepting a larger role in the fight against ISIS. And it also knows that, in assuming this role, the Jordanian King would be even further aligning himself with the United States and, indirectly, with a competing Shi'a alliance involving Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah.

Rather than serving as a tipping point for mobilizing public sentiment in the Sunni Arab world against ISIS, it seems that a case can be made that the actions of ISIS seem geared toward achieving the exact opposite reaction -- the mobilization of angry, disenfranchised Sunni Arab youth inside Jordan against the actions of their King, creating the kinds of social rifts ISIS thrives upon. Jordan should proceed cautiously before agreeing to any expansion of its role in the anti-ISIS coalition. To do otherwise, and surrender to an emotional call for revenge, may very well pull the Hashemite Kingdom into the same vortex of fundamentalist sectarianism that has torn Iraq and Syria apart. And this is exactly what ISIS wants.