Jordan and ISIS – more bombing, less peace

Last week when ISIS burned the Jordanian pilot, Moaz al-Kassasbeh, and Jordan responded by hanging two prisoners already sentenced to death for crimes committed as part of al-Qaeda, Arise TV in London asked me to comment. Here’s the part of The World programme I was on:

The reaction of wanting to lash out is understandable, but will it help? Is it possible, as the pilot’s distraught father has demanded, to "annihilate" ISIS? For if it is not possible, the result will only be to stoke the fire.

Indeed, there are reasons for thinking that Jordan’s reaction may be counter-productive. One short-term result could be to bring ISIS closer together with al-Nusra – the al-Qaeda group with which ISIS broke and that it has been fighting. Each step further into the morass of escalation of this complex conflict makes it harder to find a way out.

Pictures of Kobani show how much destruction air power can achieve. Yet ISIS has only gone into the hills a few miles away and could be back to torture the town even further at any time.

Despite the pain ISIS has unleashed, and despite its fighters being driven out of Kobani, it still seems to be true that only a political solution will work.

Defeating a group such as ISIS through armed force may drive its adherents underground. It may even obliterate the organisation. But if the conditions that produced it persist, then something like it will re-emerge.

And, to date, the lesson of the Middle East and North Africa is that after every defeat of a militant group, another yet more militant group emerges. Precisely because the conditions persist.

If we can sympathise with a Jordanian father demanding that his son’s killers be annihilated, we may do best to interpret that as a plea to get to grips with eliminating the problem, so there is no more ISIS and no successor group.

But that means thinking much more thoroughly about the region, its capacities and its problems – including the role of outside powers – than either the region's rulers or their external allies want to.