Jordan And ISIS

A contribution from NESA intern Maryam Arshad.

By now the news of the Jordanian pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, being burned alive by ISIS has been heard by everyone. Reactions have been explosive in their own right. King Abdullah, of Jordan, has promised a powerful escalation of Jordanian airstrikes against the Islamic State.  Fox News has faced backlash for posting the ISIS produced propaganda video of the violent immolation, but the news channel’s reasoning is that the world needs to witness the horrific acts of ISIS. Overall the Muslim world has decried the violence of ISIS as being senseless and un-Islamic. As passionate as these reactions to this heinous event are, the current state begs the question – What’s next?

So many questions are coming out of the fold. Questions regarding the degree of Jordanian involvement in the airstrike campaign and that of other Gulf States have arisen. Along with this, the effectiveness of the U.S. led coalition is being probed. For six months airstrikes have been made on key Islamic State locations focused in Iraq, with a few in Syria. But the UAE and other countries have stopped airstrikes in Syria, saying that only the removal of President Assad will help the elimination of ISIS. The biggest question that remains is how will the world change its reaction to ISIS following this event?

Several answers can be speculated. The first speculation to what’s next?, could be that the U.S. and the rest of the world, including the airstrike coalition, do not change their strategy. Continue with business as usual, since it has been effective enough in Iraq. Moreover it doesn’t seem that any western country is interested in sending ground troops to fight another war. In this case continued airstrikes seem like the best option. Keeping the status quo however, is already proving to be something that will not happen. Jordan has intensified its response to ISIS in a very real way immediately following the release of the video. There also seems to be a public response urging a state reaction to ISIS. People are rallying in Amman following the airstrikes in support for more military response.

So if the status quo is not going to remain, then how is the response going to change? Ground troops in either Syria or Iraq do not seem to be a viable option. The public support for an operation like that just isn’t there. So what will change? The response and cooperation from Gulf States will increase, most likely following in Jordan’s example. The United States will still, most probably lead in the amount of airstrikes, but having the public support of people may change the outcome of the fight for the better.

The ISIS problem will not be one that will be resolved quickly or cleanly. According to BBC, ISIS still has full control in various regions in Syria. And ISIS’s penchant for fear based propaganda illustrates their fear mongering method of control. Because of this people are not likely to confront their power. ISIS also draws much of its power from residing and functioning in failed states. Syria and Iraq, already in unrest, make ISIS taking control effectively effortless. The removal of ISIS then rests in the hands of the global community, but how is up for speculation. So, what’s next?

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Al Qaeda’s Breakup with ISIS and its Consequences

A contribution from NESA intern, Philippe Labrecque.

The Syrian war just got more complex when Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s top commander, officially disavowed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). There are a variety of factions fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, but few of these groups have grown in strength as much as ISIS, as numbers of foreigners joined their ranks in the last year.

With around 1000 armed groups, with a total of nearly 100,000 fighters, friction and conflicts within such fragmented opposition with different objectives had to be expected, even between al-Qaeda’s affiliates. But al-Zawahiri’s statement in relation to ISIS goes deeper than factions fighting for control over regions of Syria.

Al-Zawahiri’s public rejection of ISIS should be understood not only as a result of diverging interests and strategy in Syria between rebel groups but also as a growing internal struggle within al-Qaeda itself. ISIS is a creation of al-Qaeda in Iraq’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his organization, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), that dates back to April 2013.

After creating the al-Nusra Front to fight in Syria, al-Baghdadi expanded his operations across the Syria-Iraq border in April of last year when al-Nusra’s successes on the battlefield made the headlines. By moving his operations to Syria, al-Baghdadi demanded that al-Nusra go back to being incorporated into ISI, effectively creating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), against al-Zawahiri’s explicit orders.

The public defiance of al-Baghadadi in creating ISIS led to a schism within the about to be absorbed al-Nusra Front as many within al-Nusra pledged their allegiance to al-Qaeda and al-Zawahiri in their own defiance to al-Baghadadi. The survival of a faction of al-Nusra, loyal to al-Qaeda, and the creation of the defiant ISIS helped fuel the recent carnage and violence between rebel groups that we have witnessed since at least January 2014.

The merger under al-Baghdadi’s command had tactical implications in the fight against Assad but it also weakened al-Qaeda’s successor to Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, within the organization as al-Baghadadi grew powerful enough to refuse an order by al-Zawahiri when the latter forbid the merger with al-Nusra. Al-Baghdadi’s rising influence and might was proven when al-Zawahiri didn’t further oppose the merge of what are two al-Qaeda affiliates.

It may be premature to say that al-Baghdadi and ISIS could challenge al-Zawahiri as the leader of al-Qaeda or even the al-Qaeda’s influence in Syria since ISIS is already isolated amongst the rebel groups in the current conflict due to their unpopular, brutal, tactics and their will to dominate the entire insurrection against Assad’s regime. However, for al-Qaeda’s top commander to publicly disavow one of its affiliates demonstrates that it may only have partial control over many of its ideological affiliates. If ISIS were to overwhelm al-Nusra and become the dominant faction amongst the rebel groups, it could further damage al-Qaeda’s leadership position within the organization and against rival international Islamist groups.

What this means for the civil war in Syria is that al-Qaeda is reduced to what is left of al-Nusra as well as fighting ISIS for influence and control over the opposition while the war against the Syrian regime is still raging. Its chances of achieving the dream of an al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist state on a parcel of Syria’s land is now nearly impossible. Moreover, the break with al-Baghdadi over Syria also means that al-Qaeda has very little influence left in Iraq as al-Baghdadi retains leadership there, for the moment at least.

Russian and Iranian support behind Assad’s regime and al-Qaeda’s potentially diminishing influence in Syria’s civil war and ISIS’ increased isolation confirms what most observers knew at this point: the Syrian civil war is a proxy war between Iran and the Gulf States for influence over the Middle East.

It remains to be seen however if al-Qaeda will get out of this conflict stronger, either by influencing the outcome or through propaganda, or if it may become even more decentralized to the point where it becomes difficult to truly assess what their actual strategic objectives are and if its ideological core has any executive power over self-proclaimed al-Qaeda affiliates in other regions such as North Africa. A fragmented al-Qaeda with tens of thousands of hardened fighters, after an eventual end to the Syrian conflict, might very well become the greatest threat to the greater Middle East and the West.

Despite the disavowal by al-Zawahiri, Al-Baghdadi proved that regional commanders with enough power may pursue their own objectives and vision of what the ideological cause demands. Depending on how and when the Syrian conflict culminates, the fight against al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism may become even more multi-faceted and require fighting many varied fronts if the West, and particularly the United States, must face multiple regional leaders increasingly free of al-Qaeda’s central command.

If it is obvious that the Syrian conflict is a proxy war, it is not so clear whether an even more fragmented al-Qaeda is necessarily better from an American counter-terrorism perspective. By the war’s end in Syria, the entire Middle East and the West may very well face a large wage of battle-tested fundamentalist fighters looking for their next battleground, creating instability in neighboring countries especially.

If Syria seems in a deadlock at the moment, it shouldn’t prevent the U.S. from preparing for a potentially disrupting new terrorist threat that equally endangers the stability in various Middle Eastern countries, especially Jordan, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and Egypt. In every crisis there is an opportunity and as American interests and Middle Eastern interests converge, the U.S. should take the lead in building even stronger ties in the region and start the dialogue and cooperation with key actors in dealing with a common threat.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.