The release of Islamic State’s (IS) video showing the barbaric immolation of captured Jordanian pilot Mouath al-Kasaesbeh spread an understandable wave of revulsion throughout Jordan and the world.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II vowed to retaliate, telling US lawmakers that Jordan would hunt IS forces until the country “runs out of fuel and bullets.” This was closely followed by the execution of two Al-Qaeda militants in Jordanian custody, and a dramatic increase in Jordanian airstrikes, predominantly against the IS stronghold in Raqqa, Syria.
With the revival of Jordanian efforts in the US-led air campaign against IS and the pivotal IS defeat in Kobane at the hands of the Kurds supported by massive air strikes, the consensus is now that IS is on the verge of defeat.
As the group’s desperation grows, reflected in its increasing barbarity, it is obvious that IS has overstretched itself, generated too many enemies, and is now in an irrevocable slide to defeat.
However, Jordan’s intensified military campaign against IS will have wider implications in the region than simply hastening IS’ defeat. As Jordan has ramped up its air strikes, it has also increased its diplomatic efforts to secure high-end military hardware from the US.
While the Obama administration has so far rejected Jordan’s request for advanced weaponry such as armed predator drones – apparently because it could impinge on Israel’s regional weapon superiority – political momentum is building in Washington to increase arms shipments to Jordan.
US military aid to Jordan could change the balance of power
Immediately before the release of the IS video, the US agreed to increase US aid to Jordan from US$660 million to $1 billion and it is likely that the increased Jordanian role in the air campaign and backing from key US politicians such as John McCain will eventually sway the administration to also supply advanced weapons to Jordan.
However, Jordan’s military intensification against IS is also highlighting the new reality that will face the Middle East in the event of IS’ demise.
Jordan’s decision to deepen its involvement in Iraq and Syria will dramatically increase its power and regional influence, especially once the US supplies the Jordanian military with advanced weaponry and munitions.
Furthermore, the UAE, in response to the killing of al-Kasaesbeh, has decided to send 16 fighter-bomber jets to Jordan to help their Sunni brethren. This increase in Sunni Arab intervention in Iraq and Syria is one of the most important developments of the anti-IS military campaign, and will likely destabilize the region long after the demise of IS.
Iran is likely to be skeptical of Jordan’s role
From Iran’s point of view, Iraq and Syria, two nations vital to its national strategy, are now crowded with Sunni-state militaries, who are increasing their authority and influence in both Iraq and Syria.
Furthermore, many of these militaries are allied with the US, which has once again regained much of its lost influence with the Iraqi government since its 2011 withdrawal.
Once IS is defeated, there will inevitably rise a power vacuum and it is highly probable that a cold war will dramatically escalate between Iran and the anti-IS Sunni nations for de facto control of Iraq and Syria.
The post-IS cold war will certainly keep the Middle East fragmented and reeling from proxy conflicts between Shia and Sunni militias and asymmetrical attacks against civilian and military targets throughout the region.
In this environment, economic revival, reconstruction, and investment will be minimal and many states will find it exceptionally difficult to attract foreign investment on terms beneficial to the state.
As Jordan’s new involvement in Iraq and Syria highlights the inevitability of the coming conflict between Iran and Sunni governments in the region, it also emphasizes how precarious the economic outlook for the Middle East is in the foreseeable future.