West Asia

Reaping whirlwind

Print edition : March 06, 2015

A Jordanian girl holds a poster of pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh, who was being held captive by Islamic State militants, in Amman on February 2. Photo: MUHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS

An Islamic State fighter stands next to a man, said to be the Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, kneeling on the ground in an unknown location in this still image from a video released by the Islamic State on January 31 and obtained from Site Intel Group website. Photo: REUTERS/SITE INTEL GROUP VIA REUTERS TV

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned that the Japanese govenment "would make the terrorists pay the price". Photo: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP

Even as the Islamic State, which is on a killing spree, is being gradually pushed back in Iraq and Syria, the goal of a decisive military victory over it will remain elusive in the near future.

The brutal beheading of two Japanese citizens and the torching of a Jordanian pilot who were in the captivity of the Islamic State (I.S.) were the latest instances of the group’s total disregard for basic humanitarian norms. Its propagandists claim that the I.S. is only replicating on a smaller scale what the United States and its allies did with their bombings of civilian areas in Iraq and the torture that was practised in Abu Ghraib and another centres run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It is not a coincidence that the prisoners and hostages chosen for execution are all dressed in orange jumpsuits, similar to those worn by detainees in the U.S.-run prison in Guantanamo Bay.

The I.S. has not confined itself to beheading and killing of hostages in the areas it controls in Syria and Iraq. In the Sinai Peninsula, an Egyptian group affiliated to the I.S., the Ansar Beit al Maqdis, staged an attack on Egyptian army and police posts in the last week of January. At least 32 security personnel were killed in that attack, and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi cut short his visit to Addis Ababa for the African Union (A.U.) summit. In the Libyan capital, Tripoli, a group affiliated to the I.S. attacked the Corinthia Hotel, a five-star facility frequented by foreigners and high dignitaries. Among those killed were Americans working in the oil sector. Earlier in the year, the I.S. staged an attack on a Saudi border post, killing a senior army officer. After the new King was sworn in, the I.S. has announced that overthrowing the monarchy in Saudi Arabia will be high on its priority list.

Another monarch, King Abdullah of Jordan, has reacted to the killing of the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Moaz al Kasasbeh, by ordering an escalation of air attacks on I.S. targets. The King told a visiting U.S. Congressman that Jordan would stop its attacks on the I.S. only if its air force ran out of fuel and weapons. In the second week of February, the I.S. reported that a U.S. hostage, Kayla Mueller, a 26-year-old aid worker, was killed during a Jordanian air attack. She was the lone female American hostage known to be in I.S. custody.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), a member of the U.S.-led military coalition against the I.S., code-named “Operation Inherent Resolve”, had suspended its air operations against the I.S. after the shooting down of the Jordanian F-16 and the capture of the pilot. In the second week of February, the UAE announced the resumption of attacks on the I.S. and sent a squadron of F-16 fighters to Amman.

Prisoner exchange

The I.S. had wanted the release of Sajida al Rishawi, an Iraqi woman who was part of an Al Qaeda group which carried out a suicide attack in a five-star hotel in Amman in 2006, in exchange for the release of the Jordanian pilot and the two Japanese. Sajida al Rishawi’s suicide vest failed to explode but her husband, who was part of the suicide mission, died in the operation.

The Jordanian authorities initially gave the impression that they were not averse to the idea of a prisoner exchange. But the I.S. made the negotiations very complicated as the two Japanese prisoners were included in the proposed deal. The I.S. demanded $200 million from the Japanese government along with the release of Sajida al Rishawi, who has been on death row. The Japanese government had pledged $200 million to the U.S.-led coalition against the I.S. in January this year.

There were demonstrations on the streets of Amman demanding that the King release the Iraqi suicide bomber in exchange for their downed pilot. The Jordanian government’s decision to join the anti-I.S. coalition led by the U.S. was unpopular domestically. Jordan is overwhelmingly Sunni, and the I.S. gets its support from fellow Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. In the Jordanian town of Maan, the flag of I.S. is openly displayed.

The pilot’s family belongs to an influential tribe in the kingdom. The loyalty of the tribes is important for the Hashemite dynasty’s longevity. Although today the majority of the kingdom’s population is Palestinian, recruitment to the security forces is mainly from the Bedouin and other tribes that inhabited the area before the creation of Israel and the forced exile of Palestinians from their lands.

Jordan was among the countries that facilitated the training and arming of Syrian fighters in the failed campaign for regime change in Syria. Many of these fighters, along with Jordanian citizens, today are with the I.S. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda leader in Iraq who was known for his brutal style of leadership, was a Jordanian citizen. The leader of the I.S., Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, was his acolyte. After Zarqawi’s killing in a U.S. drone attack, his terrorist group morphed into the I.S.

The “Sahwa” militias, comprising Sunni tribal fighters who were trained and financed by the Americans to fight Zarqawi and those opposed to the occupation, have also switched sides and joined the I.S. Jordan’s economy, always heavily dependent on foreign aid, has been badly affected by the bloodletting in Syria. Today, the kingdom hosts more than a million Syrian refugees.

According to initial reports, the Jordanian King had agreed in principle for a straightforward swap of the Iraqi prisoner with the pilot. Now there are reports that the I.S. could have been carrying out an elaborate hoax. Arab media reports suggest that the Jordanian pilot was set on fire in the first week of January itself. The I.S. stratagem, it seems, was to put the Jordanian and Japanese governments in a political and diplomatic dilemma.

When the hostage negotiations were on, there were protests in Japan against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to support the anti-I.S. military coalition which put Japanese citizens unnecessarily in harm’s way. The beheading of the Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, however, shifted public anger towards the bestiality displayed by the I.S. The Japanese Prime Minister issued a statement threatening the I.S. with dire consequences. He warned that the Japanese government “would make the terrorists pay the price”.

Abe is trying to channel the public’s revulsion towards his agenda for rewriting the country’s pacifist Constitution which has restricted military operations abroad. He claimed that these restrictions had hampered the efforts to save the lives of the two hostages as the Japanese military was not permitted to undertake overseas operations. Japanese officials have said that they have sent a proposal to the government on the feasibility of Japanese military operations abroad following the beheading of the two hostages.

Abe has been wanting for a long time to back Japan’s “soft power” with military muscle. This year’s military budget is the biggest in the country’s post-War history. The government has earmarked $42 billion for upgrading the Japanese military. The killing of the two Japanese hostages has galvanised some sections of public opinion in favour of Abe’s policies. At the same time, the majority of the populace remains steadfast in their support of Japan’s pacifist Constitution.

Even as the I.S. forces are being gradually pushed back in Iraq and Syria, the goal of a decisive military victory over it will remain elusive in the near future. The military operations, according to President Barack Obama, are aimed at “degrading and ultimately destroying the I.S.”.

The air raids led by the U.S. have played a key role in the recapture of small towns like Kobane. But the town itself was completely flattened. Bigger cities like Mosul, with more than a million residents, will have to be completely destroyed if the I.S. is to be driven out. The I.S. forces are well armed, fattened by the largesse from Gulf monarchies, Turkey and the U.S. The priority for the Gulf monarchies even today is to pin down the Muslim Brotherhood and the Shias. The Brotherhood and Hizbollah have been branded as terrorist organisations in many of the Gulf monarchies.

In recent days, the American media have been full of stories about the close relationship Saudi Arabia has had with militant Islamist groups which later morphed into Al Qaeda. According to the reports, the newly anointed King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud was the key liaison between the Saudi government and the militant groups which were fighting in Afghanistan, Bosnia and other countries. Until 2013, the Saudis and their allies in the region armed and trained radical Islamist groups and the allegedly “moderate” Free Syrian Army to fight in Syria. Many of the fighters, along with their weaponry, defected either to the Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate, or the I.S. The I.S. became a quasi state after its dramatic capture of Mosul and the capitulation of the U.S.-trained Iraqi army. The loss of Mosul and the acquisition of huge tranches of U.S.-made weapons, tanks and armoured vehicles worth billions of dollars left behind by the Iraqi army helped the I.S. to become an even more potent fighting force.

Wake-up call for India

The recent killings of the hostages should serve as a wake-up call for the Indian government. There has been some talk in Indian official circles about India playing a more robust role in the fight against “extremism and terrorism” in West Asia. The Obama administration is keen on countries like India joining the military alliance it hastily cobbled up against the I.S. six months ago. Any overt or covert involvement of India in the U.S.-led enterprise could have an adverse impact on the fate of 39 Indian hostages held by the I.S. since the fall of Mosul last year. The Indian government has been insisting that they are alive. Iraqi diplomats have also concurred with this despite some reports suggesting that they were killed seven months ago.

The Indian government has deployed a diplomat along with two intelligence officers to secure the release of the 39 Indian workers. A media report, quoting two Bangladeshi workers released by the I.S., said that the I.S. had executed the Indians after segregating them from other prisoners. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj stated in Parliament that she believed that the 39 Indians were still alive and the government was hoping to bring them home safely.

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