As Jordanians come to terms with the loss of one of their favorites sons, Moaz al-Kassasbeh, policy makers in Washington are surely losing sleep over the realization that they have narrowly dodged a bullet (literally and figuratively). The illustrious al-Kassasbeh, member of the elite flying corps of the Jordanian Air Force and nephew of a Jordanian general, was shot down on 24 December 2014 near Raqqa, Syria while flying a mission against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Captured uninjured by ISIL fighters, al-Kassasbeh’s case illustrates one of the fundamental weaknesses of using airpower to fight a ground war, specifically that a downed aircraft and a captured pilot carries political implications, particularly when operating as part of a coalition of the willing.
While the horrific scenes of al-Kassasbeh’s capture and subsequent execution affect each stakeholder in different ways, the result is ultimately the same; support for the coalition is eroding at the grass roots level. The United Arab Emirates has already halted bombing missions over Syrian territory and others are undoubtedly considering similar restrictions on their pilots. Despite Jordan’s lethal proximity to the problem, some Jordanians argue that a deterrent posture and a raft of political and economic agreements has worked with the likes of ISIL before and will be cheaper and more effective than airpower ever was. There is some merit in this view as expensive fighter planes and their elite pilots are an extravagant novelty often held up in small countries as a symbol of national status. In Jordan, al-Kassasbeh’s demise is more than just a material loss, it is a national disaster they can little afford.
And Jordan is not the only stakeholder here. From the start, ISIL attempted to connect al-Kassasbeh to Japanese military aid to countries fighting the group. They held a Japanese adventurer, Haruna Yukawa and his would-be rescuer, Kenji Goto for a ransom of $200 million, a symbolic sum equal to the amount recently pledged by Shinzo Abe. Not surprisingly, this had little effect on the Japanese and ISIL changed tactics, demanding the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi female suicide bomber in a Jordanian prison since she failed to blow herself up in the Radisson Hotel Amman in 2005. ISIL’s move was an attempt not only to win support in Iraq, but also to connect their cause directly to the memory of resistance to American occupation which al-Rishawi claimed to represent. While ISIL’s demands fell on deaf ears in both Amman and Tokyo, the debate sparked a growing political problem for the Jordanians.
The same pressures will influence American politicians. Since the US policy seems to have stagnated at “something must be done”, it stands to reason that Washington will keep all options on the table, including declaring victory and leaving the situation to someone else. The political pressure to do just that will mount during the run up to the 2016 Presidential election because many Americans view the situation in Iraq as a result of a squandering of thousands of American lives and billions of dollars spent to stabilize Iraq after the 2003 invasion. No matter how Americans felt about the righteousness of that intervention, very few feel responsible for cleaning up the current mess, particularly since the genesis of it was in Syria and not Iraq.
So the Pentagon has to adjust to a raft of new restrictions on its air power; restrictions that are military but derive from the nervousness of politicians. Though the Jordanian Air Force will take up some of the slack, it is almost certainly a temporary measure until Amman can declare “revenge complete” and return to base. After that, it’s almost certain that more American F-16s will be heading to the Middle East until election rhetoric tempts the President to declare their mission complete; a brilliant success against the degraded, but still dangerous ISIL.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.