February 7, 2015

The death of Lieutenant Mu'az al-Kasasbah - some thoughts

By now, virtually everyone with even a passing interest in the Middle East has at least heard of the brutal immolation of Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) pilot 1st Lieutenant Mu'az al-Kasasbah at the hands of the self-described Islamic State (more commonly called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS). Al-Kasasbah's F-16 fighter jet crashed in Syria on December 24, 2014 - there are indications that he was murdered as early as January 3 of this year.

News commentators, political pundits and military analysts (including me) have offered our thoughts on the murder - why did they do it, what did it accomplish, was it a smart propaganda tool for ISIS, will it increase ISIS recruitment, did it violate the tenets of Islam, etc.

Here are a few initial thoughts and conclusions.

Let's address the gruesome murder of Lt al-Kasasbah. I watched the video (I believe it is part of my professional obligation) and cannot remember feeling this much revulsion at the death of another human, a fellow airman and officer - and I survived an improvised explosive device (IED) attack which resulted in a scene of sickening carnage.

By way of disclosure, I served as an adviser to the Jordan Armed Forces - my colleagues included several RJAF officers - I feel a sense of kinship with my Jordanian brothers in arms. I make a living analyzing events and either writing about them or talking about them on the air, but it is hard to find the words to describe the feelings this video generated.

The video - obviously almost professionally produced - placed Lt al-Kasasbah in scenes designed to replicate areas subjected to coalition airstrikes. In fact, the man who lit the accelerant which ignited the fire that killed the pilot was identified in the Arabic caption of the video as the leader of a unit who had been bombed by coalition aircraft.

The fact that ISIS chose to make this point is telling. There are many analysts in the media, academia and what I will call "militaria" (we retired officers who analyze wars and combat operations) have been critical of the U.S.-led air operation against ISIS which began in August 2014. Granted, it is hard to accurately assess the effects of the air campaign against ISIS, but overall the evaluation has not been favorable.

Based on U.S. Air Force standards, the campaign is, to be kind, anemic - the sortie counts are mere fractions of the amount we analysts believe is required to deal a decisive blow to ISIS. Although in Iraq the airstrikes may have blunted ISIS's momentum as it advanced down the Tigris River valley towards Baghdad and stopped the group's moves towards the Kurdish area, the terrorist organization still manages to hold territory and launch new attacks - the oil-rich city of Kirkuk is now in their sights.

That said, American and allied fighter and bomber aircraft have dealt a blow to ISIS. I would be remiss if I did not distinguish between coalition air operations over Iraq and those over Syria. While there are many nations who have committed aircraft to military operations over Iraq, very few have agreed to allow their pilots to operate over Syria.

Only the United States and a handful of Arab countries - Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar - agreed to attack targets in Syria. This arrangement may stem from the Iraqi government's unwillingness to have aircraft of countries who are supporting the removal of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad, a government supported by the Shi'a-dominated government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi, operate in its skies. When it comes to the United States, the Iraqis have no choice - they need American airpower.

After the capture of Lt al-Kasasbah, the Arab countries suspended operations, leaving only the United States to conduct airstrikes in Syria, including a large number of sorties aimed at stopping ISIS from overrunning the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobani on the Turkish border. At least that part of the operation has met with some success - ISIS has been forced to withdraw after suffering heavy losses to American airpower.

One of the objections voiced by the Arab members of the coalition, particularly the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was the long distance of combat search and rescue (CSAR) forces from the target areas. Some analysts believe that had there been CSAR assets staged closer to Syria, there may have been a chance to rescue Lt al-Kasasbah. In reaction to this criticism, the U.S. has moved its CSAR forces into northern Iraq. At the same time, the UAE has deployed an F-16 squadron to a Jordanian air base to cut the flight time to targets in Syria from hours to minutes.

When I think about the brutal method used to murder Lt al-Kasasbah, I believe that ISIS is being battered by the coalition air campaign and is frustrated because there is very little they can do about it. Although it is hard to gauge the effectiveness of the air campaign, it seems to be hurting them.

Another factor of frustration is ISIS's realization too late - almost certainly after they killed the pilot in early January - that they missed an opportunity of having an extremely valuable hostage in their custody. They grossly underestimated the power and influence of the al-Kasasbah family and tribe in Jordan, and the lengths to which the Jordanian monarchy was prepared to go to secure his release.

While I do not think ISIS cared in the least about convicted suicide bomber Sijadah al-Rishawi or al-Qa'idah in Iraq member Ziyad Karbuli, it clearly missed an opportunity to extract concessions from the Jordanian government, publicly embarrass King 'Abdullah and drive a wedge between those in Jordan who did not believe ISIS posed a threat to the kingdom and those who supported the king's affiliation with the coalition.

ISIS miscalculated the regional and international response to the brutal murder of Lt Mu'az al-Kasasbah. It appears that all ISIS has done is galvanized the Jordanian people to support their king in his stepped up participation in airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and brought at least one of the other Arab allies, the UAE, back into the fray.

ISIS has responded by burning alive at least three Iraqis in the western Iraqi governorate of al-Anbar. I think they may have miscalculated again. People who were undecided on how to deal with these brutal psychopaths are beginning to realize that there is only one way to deal with them - hunt them down and kill them.