Acts of individual violence and terror can at times be transformative, representing extraordinary tipping points that changed history. The 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for example, triggered a set of pre-wired alliances that led to World War I; the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit seller triggered what came to be known as the “Arab Spring.”
The same logic is now being used to characterize the savage and horrific burning death last month of Jordanian pilot Moaz Kasasbeh. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said this latest Islamic State atrocity must be a “game changer” for President Obama.
The congressman’s words are understandable. This act of violence seems to go beyond even the horrific baseline Islamic State has established.
But as tempting as it may be to see the killing as a transformative act, it probably won’t be. And here’s why.
There’s no doubt that Islamic State has miscalculated. Its beheadings of two Japanese nationals and the burning of the Jordanian pilot reflect a frustrated and perhaps even failing policy. It received no ransom money for the hostages and surrendered leverage by reportedly killing the pilot weeks before negotiations even began. What it did get was a public backlash in Jordan and throughout the region that led to the execution of two militants held by Jordan, one of whom was the prisoner Islamic State originally wanted in a trade.
That said, will these violent acts do damage to and have a lasting impact on Islamic State?
The Jordanians are effective warriors, but how might they hurt Islamic State and how badly? In recent days, Jordan has conducted intense airstrikes against Islamic State targets. Still, Jordanian public opinion, which mostly backed the government after Kasasbeh’s killing, is fickle. After Islamic State captured Kasasbeh in December, there was building resentment on the street questioning whether this was Jordan’s fight. If the Jordanian military is contemplating commando raids or sustained airstrikes, it risks the capture of additional pilots or soldiers. And presumably any actions Jordan takes against Islamic State would be in concert with coalition strategy. That would be driven mostly by available targets. A high-profile Jordanian military role against high-value Islamic State leadership targets would be better, but those opportunities are rare.
Could Kasasbeh’s killing cause such revulsion that it spurs the Arab states into more effective and concerted action? There was widespread condemnation and anger in the Middle East over it, including in Syria, Iran, Qatar, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, getting Sunni Arab states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to own the fight against the militants has been a U.S. goal. And Washington has had some success. But it’s hard to see what else key Arab states would be willing to do or what they could do.
Further, keeping the coalition intact may not be easy over time. The UAE worried about what might happen if its pilots were to be taken hostage, and it was reported last week that it had suspended its participation after Kasasbeh was captured. No Arab state would be prepared to send large numbers of ground troops into Syria or, for that matter, Iraq for much the same reason. Efforts to counter radical Islamic ideology would be helpful and perhaps would do more to prevent the flow of gulf money to militants in Syria. But that effort never has had much success.
As for the United States, Kasasbeh’s killing and the Islamic State’s claim that Jordan’s retaliatory airstrikes killed the American aid worker kidnapped last year only add to the confusion about American efforts to deal with the militants. Other than additional military coordination with Jordan, we can expect only the continuation of the overall strategy to check Islamic State gains in Iraq and the plan for assisting Iraqi forces in retaking the city of Mosul and other areas lost to the militants. The air campaign will continue against Islamic State in Syria. Any broader shifts in U.S. policy as a result of the killing, such as deploying large numbers of ground forces, seems unlikely.
There’s no doubt that Islamic State has fallen on harder times. The loss of Kobani in northern Syria, difficulty in making further gains in Iraq and the problems of governance have combined to check its momentum from last year.
But the inconvenient truth is that ungoverned spaces in Syria and Iraq present huge opportunities for Islamic State and other Islamist groups. No governance or bad governance in these unhappy lands, combined with sectarian divides deepened by pro-Iranian policies in Iraq and President Bashar Assad’s policies in Syria, alienate Sunni Muslims and keep the recruitment pool for Islamic State very deep.
President Obama understandably talks about degrading and ultimately defeating Islamic State. But the latter seems highly unlikely. The war will be long and the field of battle broadened to include places such as Yemen, Libya and, as we’ve seen, France, Belgium and other parts of Europe.
The horrific fate of Jordan’s pilot is less a transformative act that will hasten Islamic State’s end and is more a brutal reflection of the sadistic enemy we face.
Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, served as a Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.