The Syrian crisis is even more protracted and dangerous for Jordan than the burning to death of Jordanian pilot Moaz Al-Kasasbeh would suggest. This hideous crime was designed to stir Arab and international uproar in general, and provoke the Jordanians in particular. The crime reflects the intentions of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) towards Jordan, which has been dealing with the fallout from the crisis of its northern neighbor Syria since the very beginning of the uprising there.
I think Jordan has an important role to play in Syria, one that it hasn’t yet taken. Although it has avoided engaging in the struggle directly, Jordan has not been allowed to remain distant from the crisis by the Syrians themselves. While the Syrian regime is aware that its borders with Jordan are a regional red line and will therefore never dare cross them, ISIS sees Jordan as the best candidate for its next target.
Jordan is a country with a wholly Arab Sunni environment. It neighbors Israel and, geographically speaking, complements the southern part of ISIS’s territory in southwest Iraq, where ISIS’ presence directly threatens Saudi Arabia. ISIS does not care about attacking areas where Sunnis are a minority, like Iraqi Shi’ite provinces or Syrian Alawite ones. It wants to take over areas which it thinks it can subjugate and turn into a reservoir of support for its sectarian policies, even if the population opposes its political system. One can follow the path taken by ISIS from Iraq to Syria to see how the organization thinks. I don’t want to expend much time on understanding the group’s motives, but what is certain is that it considers Jordan an enemy more serious than the Syrian regime, which opened conduits for it to strike at the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA)—an enemy to both sides.
Jordan has not been able to play a direct role during the past four years of the Syrian conflict because of its clear stance against getting involved in that conflict. However, getting involved is not an option when the people in your country can actually hear the Syrian regime’s shelling of Syrian towns like Dera’a, and when your country hosts more than half a million Syrian refugees—a significant population that is posing serious financial, political and security challenges for Jordan. At a later point, Jordanian forces may end up getting unwillingly dragged into Syria and having to choose a side. It’s no secret the FSA operates in northern Jordan, and inside the southern Syrian borders which it almost completely controls. But it is not yet an armed force with enough advanced weapons to enable it to take over Damascus, which is only 60 miles (100 kilometers) away from Dera’a—or an hour’s drive.
If Jordan and the other countries backing the FSA had taken the risk and enabled the FSA to enter and control Damascus, we may not have arrived at this complicated and dangerous phase in which terrorist organizations have emerged to become the biggest threat confronting the world. Can Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the rest of the region’s countries tolerate the repercussions of the Syrian crisis, along with all these terrorist organizations and the Syrian regime’s criminality, for another 10 years? Can anyone allow the situation on the northern front near Turkey, which the Al-Nusra Front dominates, to continue?
We saw how it was difficult to liberate a town like Kobani from ISIS fighters, and how ISIS threatened the security of the entire Kurdistan region, which had been fortified for two decades. ISIS continues to occupy two big Iraqi cites—Mosul and Kirkuk—and all Iraqi, American and Iranian attempts to liberate them so far have failed. Bearing this in mind, we cannot underestimate the threat of ISIS and categorize its acts as mere terrorist operations—on the contrary, it is capable of invading, dominating, settling and expanding in more territory. The hideous manner in which ISIS murdered the Jordanian pilot aimed to intimidate Jordanians and others. The video of his murder has been viewed just enough to instill fear and deliver the message that the arrival of the organization’s fighters alone is enough to terrify civilians—and this is exactly what happened in the Iraqi cities which ISIS attacked and invaded.