Jordan’s king thrusts country to center of IS war

Abdullah II gears up for military confrontation with extremists following horrific burning to death of pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh

Jordan's Queen Rania holds a picture of slain Jordanian pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, during a march after Friday prayers in Amman, Jordan, Friday, Feb. 6, 2015 (photo credit: AP/Raad Adayleh)
Jordan's Queen Rania holds a picture of slain Jordanian pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, during a march after Friday prayers in Amman, Jordan, Friday, Feb. 6, 2015 (photo credit: AP/Raad Adayleh)

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — King Abdullah II has thrust Jordan to the center of the war against the Islamic State group with his pledge of relentless retaliation for the killing of one of his pilots.

The 53-year-old monarch also highlighted his personal role as he tried to shore up public support for what could be a long campaign. In video played repeatedly on state TV, the career soldier was shown in military fatigues, sleeves rolled up, as he huddled with military chiefs.

In the short term, the crisis over the killing of the captive airman, who was burned to death in a cage, appears to have strengthened Abdullah.

Until recently, he had been on the defensive about Jordan’s participation in the US-led military coalition conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State group. The public’s misgivings have been replaced by cries for revenge this week after the extremists released a video showing the horrific death of 26-year-old Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh.

“The king is in a very strong position,” said Fayek Hijazeen, who covers the monarch for the official Petra news agency. “All the people are standing behind him.”

But stepping up the pace of airstrikes could also mean more combat casualties. “This is not a cycle the king would relish,” said David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank.

Others said the pounding from the air could provoke Islamic State to carry out attacks inside Jordan.

In the months before the killing of al-Kaseasbeh, Abdullah had warned in increasingly strident tones of the threat posed by the militants, not just to Jordan, but to the world, and he called on moderate Muslims to take a stand.

“This is a war the world cannot afford to lose,” he was to have said in a speech Thursday in Washington that was instead delivered by Jordan’s ambassador because Abdullah had rushed back home to deal with the crisis. “But to win it, all of us must be in it.”

After his return to Jordan, he met with army commanders to plan a swift response. By Thursday, as he visited the pilot’s family at their mourning tent in southern Jordan, fighter jets roared overhead, having returned from bombing raids against IS targets in Syria.

The military carried out airstrikes on Islamic State weapons depots and training sites on Thursday and Friday. Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh warned that “we are going to take this all the way,” and suggested targets in Iraq could also be hit. Up to now, Jordan and other Arab members of the coalition have struck in Syria, but not Iraq.

The militants control about one-third of both Syria and Iraq, neighbors of Jordan.

A statement attributed to the Islamic State claimed that a female American hostage was killed in Jordanian airstrikes Friday near their stronghold, the Syrian city of Raqqa. Jordan dismissed it as “criminal propaganda,” and US officials said they were checking the claim.

In leading the military campaign, Abdullah seems to be in his element. Before succeeding his father, the late King Hussein, in 1999, he had spent most of his adult life in the military, parachuting from planes and flying combat helicopters.

Abdullah has maneuvered through a series of crises in 16 years on the throne, an anniversary he marks Saturday. In 2005, al-Qaeda sent suicide bombers who targeted three Amman hotels, killing 60 people in the worst terror attack on Jordanian soil. The king maintains close security ties with Israel, while appealing to Israel’s leaders to do more to reach a deal on Palestinian statehood.

“This is an opportunity to shine, to really play a leadership role … in an area in which he is comfortable, in which he is confident, and in which he as great international and domestic support,” Schenker said.

The latest crisis could also help him reconnect with the Jordanian tribes, a traditional mainstay of support for the monarchy, but a minority in a country that has absorbed millions of refugees and their descendants, including Palestinians, Iraqis and Syrians.

Abdullah, educated in the US and Britain, has been perceived at home as being more comfortable speaking English than Arabic and more at ease in Western capitals than in the company of tribal leaders.

But at the wake for the pilot, who grew up in southern tribal region of Karak, the king warmly embraced the family, at one point walking hand-in-hand with the bereaved father, Safi al-Kaseasbeh, to the mourning tent. The king’s tough response to the killing of the airman is bound to reassure the tribes, the main pool of recruits for the army and the security services.

On Thursday and Friday, several thousand people attended solidarity rallies in which marchers help posters of Abdullah. “We all stand united with the Hashemite leadership in facing terrorism,” read one of the banners.

Queen Rania, the king’s wife, joined Friday’s demonstration, ringed by a cordon of security men as the crowd slowly walked in downtown Amman.

It was not clear to what extent these rallies were spontaneous, but analysts said there has been a clear shift in public opinion that left Abdullah in a better position than just a few days ago.

“The king gets the consensus of the street, he gets international support, as well as financial and military support,” said Bassam Badareen, a Jordanian political analyst.

He said the ramped-up confrontation could increase the risk of Islamic State attacks inside Jordan, but that the country would likely be able to deal with such a scenario.

The killing of the pilot served as a wake-up call, with Jordanians feeling directly threatened by Islamic State and now placing the relative stability provided by the monarchy above longstanding demands for political and economic reforms, analysts said.

“I think there is a national consensus on the need to preserve the stability and integrity of the country,” said Abdul-Ilah Khatib, a former foreign minister. “There is a conviction that we are a target, as a country, and that we need to face the challenge.”

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.

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