By Joyce Karam
5 February 2015
The brutal sadistic horror that ISIS put on display this week by showcasing the burning of 26-year-old Jordanian Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh is by no means a sign of strength. Coming on the heels of significant losses from Kobane to Diyala, and triggering a new front with Jordan, ISIS has effectively hastened its own demise.
The collapse of ISIS will not come overnight and it might take years absent of a genuine political process in both Iraq and Syria. But in the Arab and Muslim streets, ISIS before February 3 is not the same after, and the ashes of a young Arab pilot are a turning point in how the region views the group. While ISIS has killed and maimed thousands of Syrians and Iraqis, and decapitated American, British and Japanese hostages, the public burning of Moaz al-Kasasbeh struck a chord in the Middle East. There is a sudden realization that this brutality has gone too far, that it’s destroying the Arab and Muslim core and changing the cultural fabric of the Middle East.
The ISIS video might have won the group points on style but it failed miserably on strategy. The production team that assembled the notorious images delivered a well-executed horror show: hooded fighters with machine guns on the empty hills of Raqqa (Northeast of Syria) watching an unarmed defenceless young Muslim walking to the cage of death. But if the idea from the video was to stir chaos in the Hashemite Kingdom, ISIS has achieved just the opposite. Jordanian tribes, the military and the public are rallying in unprecedented fashion behind King Abdullah II and his government.
Opening a new front with Jordan is strategically and politically foolish for ISIS. The group is already under fire from a broad international air campaign, Kurdish and Iraqi and Syrian fighters as well as Shiite militias.
Regionally, ISIS’ savagery has brought a rare moment of agreement among political nemesis in the Arab world. Here is Hezbollah an ally of the Assad regime and on the opposite side Muslim cleric Yousef al-Qardawy both condemning ISIS.
The group that exploited disaffected Iraqis and Syrians last June as it vanquished Mosul and Raqqa and Deir Azzor, has very little to offer today besides fear and terror. As it ransacks libraries in Mosul, sells kids, rapes girls and stones women, while failing at providing social services, the Caliphate is seen to be detouring to the old tactics of its founder Abu Musaab Zarqawi.
The backlash over ISIS’ killing of Moaz al-Kasasbeh comes at a critical political juncture for the organization. While the gruesome burning is believed to have occurred in early January, its release this week was to overshadow losses for ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.
ISIS has recently lost its five-month battle in Kobane, its Chemical Weapons expert Abu Malik has been killed, it’s being pushed back in the Diyala province and there is increased speculation about a growing rift between its former-Baathists’ wing and the religious fanatics. A senior U.S. official also points out that many foreign fighters with the group have stopped buying into the Caliph’s propaganda and had refused orders to go up to Kobane and fight in what has become a death trap for ISIS.
The reverse of military fortunes for ISIS has to be accompanied by aggressive political action plan. Airstrikes will not rid ancient Mesopotamia of ISIS and sectarian militias fighting the group cannot bring its defeat. Rolling back the group requires a bottom-up approach that incorporates a political roadmap on the local level and is endorsed regionally for both Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi government is taking some strides in this direction by approving a draft law for a National Guard force to empower the Iraqi Sunnis. There is also more political chatter in Washington and regional capitals on the possibility of enlisting ground troops (Arab troops) in fighting ISIS. Syria, on the other hand, is a more daunting challenge with a deepening political crisis, and a weakened moderate opposition. It is no coincidence that ISIS killed most of its hostages in Syria and moved the families of its leaders from Mosul to Raqqa.
The horrendous burning of Moaz al-Kasasbeh has magnified the bankrupt ideology and hypocrisy of ISIS. If orchestrated right by the coalition and regional countries, this turning point in ISIS’ image could provide an opportunity to address the political frustrations that gave birth to the group in the first place, proving that only by reversing them, it can be defeated.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution.