WASHINGTON -- The U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State became even more complicated Tuesday, after a video posted online indicated that the militant group had killed a Jordanian pilot taking part in that fight.
The video appeared to depict the pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, being burned alive by Islamic State militants. Al-Kaseasbah was taken captive on Dec. 24, 2014, after his jet went down during a bombing mission over Syria. His country is one of the U.S.'s high-profile Arab partners in the international military campaign against the Islamic State.
Hours after the news broke about Kaseasbeh, The New York Times revealed that another Arab partner praised in the U.S. for its role in the American-led campaign, the United Arab Emirates, ceased running airstrikes in December after the Jordanian's capture. The U.A.E. reportedly did so was because it doubted the American capacity to rescue coalition pilots whose planes might go down in Islamic State-held territory.
Washington was quick to respond to the pilot's death, with President Barack Obama proclaiming that it would only strengthen the coalition's determination to combat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. But the incident came at a difficult time for a coalition that appears to be having trouble maintaining its unity. Jordan watchers have suggested in recent days that their Arab nation may struggle with its commitment to the anti-ISIS campaign because the pilot's case had bolstered doubts about the fight within the country.
“It is Jordan’s right to defend itself against Islamic State, but not to start wars or fight on others’ behalf,” Abdullah Salah, an activist from the southern city of Maan, told The Wall Street Journal. “This is not our decision to take part in these wars."
Ali Dalaen, a former lawmaker from the pilot's hometown, told Reuters that Jordanians were likely to blame the pilot's loss on the government more than on the Islamic State.
And a former Jordanian minister told the Middle East news site al-Monitor that the controversy over al-Kaseasbeh -- including questions about whether Jordan was doing enough to help him and whether he should have been flying over Syria in the first place -- was the biggest challenge to Jordan's King Abdullah in a decade.
Echoing other commentators, al-Kaseasbah's father said Saturday that the Islamic State fight "is not our war." Discontent with the Jordanian role in the coalition is reportedly growing, especially in the south of the country, the region from which al-Kaseasbeh and many other members of the military originate.
Abdullah has sought to make his nation central to U.S. military policy in the Middle East, in a departure from the more cautious policy of his father. The late King Hussein is thought to have declined to participate in the U.S.-led operation against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 1991 because of anti-war sentiment at home.
Some Jordanians see the pilot's plight as an indication that their country is suffering as a result of its partnership with the U.S. in the anti-ISIS coalition. Analysts have even suggested that the Islamic State's tactics are deliberately designed to undermine Abdullah by turning popular opinion in Jordan against the military campaign.
Jordan is one of the poorer countries in the U.S.-led coalition. It does not have the vast oil and gas wealth of partners like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and its economy has suffered following a massive influx of refugees from the civil war in neighboring Syria. The kingdom has received significant U.S. support at times when it appeared that Jordan could help promote Middle East stability, notably around the time of the invasion of Iraq and then, more recently, as the CIA began training moderate Syrian rebels in Jordan.
Still, the U.S. knows it must tread carefully in the country. The CIA training was covert and never publicly endorsed by the king. And unlike other U.S. partners in the Muslim world, Jordan has refused to host training camps for the broader Pentagon-run training of Syrian rebels that is set to begin in the spring. In addition, Jordan is one of the largest sources of foreign fighters aligned with the Islamic State and other radical groups in Syria.
The discomfort in some Jordanian quarters about participation in the anti-ISIS campaign has been visible for some time now. Fahad Nazer, a terrorism analyst at the intelligence consultancy JTG, Inc. and a former political analyst at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington, pointed out that even at the time of the pilot's capture, critics of the anti-ISIS campaign were saying Jordan should have known better than to get involved.
Perhaps ironically, the news of the murder came just as Jordan and the U.S. were seeking to demonstrate the strength of their relationship. On Tuesday, the king was in Washington for one of his frequent trips, along with top officials. In the morning, at the Four Seasons Hotel, Abdullah's foreign minister signed a U.S.-Jordanian Memorandum of Understanding, securing an increase in U.S. assistance to the kingdom from $600 million per year to $1 billion. The funds are meant to help refugees fleeing the Islamic State and to assist Jordan's security forces.
The reports of the pilot's death were met with solemn reactions on Capitol Hill, where Abdullah was scheduled to meet with several lawmakers throughout the day. Despite reports that the king would be cutting his visit short to return to Amman, he was set to meet with several members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday evening.
Lawmakers told The Huffington Post they foresaw greater anti-ISIS action by Jordan.
“I think they’ll do whatever is necessary. They’ve been our best ally there outside of Israel,” said John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I think that the Jordanian people of course are very angry, very upset, and Jordan will continue to be our close and cooperative ally. They’ll probably step up their efforts.”
“It’s more than terrible," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "It goes from one unconscionable, inhumane action to the next. And it makes you wonder what these people hope to achieve."
“If anything, it’ll unite a coalition against ISIS," she added. "The brutality is unprecedented.”
Nazer told HuffPost that power brokers in Jordan's partner nations were indicating that they expected the kingdom to bring its citizens together and redouble its efforts against the militants. Prominent Arabs from neighboring powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Nazer said, were signaling on social media that the execution was "the last straw and that it was time to launch an all-out war against ISIS."
Media reports suggested that Jordan's immediate response would be to counter violence with violence and exact a swift revenge. A Jordanian security source told Reuters Tuesday his country would quickly execute the jailed Iraqi bomber, whose release the Islamic State has attempted to negotiate, and other prisoners on death row for terrorism-related charges.
Ali Watkins contributed reporting.
This article has been updated to include the report that the United Arab Emirates ceased airstrikes after the Jordanian pilot's capture.