Jordan's IS airstrike takes public by surprise

Article Summary
Jordan has joined the US-led alliance fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, stirring anger among Jordanians who know few details of the operation.

Although 10 days have passed since the sudden involvement of Jordan in the air raids against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, public opinion remains perplexed and absent from the goals and justifications of the international campaign. Most Jordanians are still wondering whether their kingdom is effectively fighting in the war or not.

The loud official silence and the conflicting statements have confused Jordanians at a critical moment, when the government needs its people’s trust. The people and the members of parliament alike awoke on Sept. 23 to the news of a Jordanian aircraft’s participation in the international alliance’s flights against IS, after they had slept to the reassurances of Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour that the kingdom wouldn't take part in this battle.

Some official statements and two brief reports about the armed forces were issued. The first of these came out in the wake of the start of the strikes, in parallel with Washington’s declaration that five Arab countries would participate. Nevertheless, apart from these statements, public opinion was unaware that Jordan was about to join its military forces in a proxy war — one that is akin to stirring a hornet’s nest, according to politicians, journalists and activists.

The question arises: How was the decision to participate in the war taken, without preparing the public opinion, which initially supported this step? According to a survey conducted by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, most Jordanians consider IS a terrorist organization and have put their unprecedented trust in the state’s military and security institutions, while their trust in the executive and legislative authorities is dwindling. The question extends further: Where are we going? What should we do to shield ourselves from possible retaliatory strikes?

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The Jordanians had been hearing for months that IS does not threaten the security and stability of their country. They were not prepared for a war and its justifications, and they did not expect this to affect their lives and Jordan’s national security. Some see the kingdom’s behavior as a road paved with risks, including the risk of possible retaliatory attacks.

Overnight, however, things changed. Statements from officials went viral on the media, declaring, “We won’t allow anything to jeopardize the safety of any part of our territories,” and, “We will cut off each hand that dare touch us.”

Perhaps King Abdullah II was the only official who had the boldness and honesty to publicly clarify matters, when he insinuated that Jordan would be part of the war against terrorism a few weeks and days before the war even started. He reiterated this statement in his press conferences and speech at the UN, two days following Jordan’s joining the war.

On the contrary, the government, the parliament, the press, political parties and civil society organizations did not assume their responsibilities, neither individually nor collectively, in dealing with the public opinion. Most people felt disgusted at the practices of IS and its affiliates, committed in the name of religion, but were against foreign intervention in the affairs of the region, as they did not trust the intentions of Washington toward Arabs and Muslims.

Security sensitivity

Even though Jordan’s participation in the war against IS might be important, the country’s motives to participate in such a controversial intervention that has high security sensitivity might have been driven by anticipation of the imminent danger — one coming from the hordes of darkness who are thirsty for blood [IS]. Jordan might have also been driven by the desire to gain public sympathy in a battle that might last for years. Therefore, the delicate details of the war might have required secrecy and confidentiality.

The plan was plotted in a primitive and messy way, perhaps intentionally, and it did not take into account the moral and constitutional responsibility toward the public, according to activists and politicians. The decision to participate in the war completely disregarded the boldness of the king and his suggestions and underestimated the Jordanians’ intelligence. This might have a high political, economic and security price in case IS and its affiliates implemented their threats of retaliation against the states participating in the international campaign. Ensour had confirmed on Sept. 6 that Jordan won’t be a member of the alliance and won’t “participate in proxy wars.” However, the total opposite happened.

In his statement, Ensour did not seem to have prior knowledge of the participation, or perhaps he did not care about public opinion.

The parliament was not involved, even in form, in making the decision to participate in the war. It is true that the Jordanian constitution gives the king the right to declare war and ratify peace accords, unlike the case in Britain. However, things would have been definitely better if the parliament and government had convened to discuss the war arrangements in a public and televised session to inform the public of the justifications of the parties supporting and opposing Jordan’s participation as a main side in the war.

This is not the first time — and it won’t be the last time — that the private and government media, whether the TV, radio, press or official news agencies, choose to abstain voluntarily from this important battle and wait for the instructions of the government, hide behind the official story or accuse others of betrayal. The media outlets are acting as though Jordanians have one opinion regarding the war against IS, although that is clearly not the case. IS participation stirs controversy and raises the question of the price of taking part in this war on the country.

Apart from some news reports that tackled “the challenges of the war against IS, which calls for protecting the internal front” and intermittent arrests, and with the exception of the articles supporting the war on terrorism out of anticipation of danger, the Jordanians did not hear or read any daily news about the progress of the ongoing air operations. They did not read any article opposing the decision to participate in the war.

If it weren’t for the statements issued daily from Washington and the articles and analyses of foreign and Hebrew media outlets, Jordanians would have thought that the participation of their country in the war had ended. Of course, the electronic media show more boldness in covering the news and uploading opinion articles, including a comment for an author who was forbidden from publishing in a daily newspaper and another comment for MP Ali al-Sanid who warned that the war against IS hides ulterior motives to re-occupy the region.

Foreign embassies, especially those affiliated with the alliance countries, have warned their nationals against visiting the capital and crowded public places such as hotels and malls. Some states have also prevented their nationals from traveling to Jordan and other countries in the region.

However, Jordanians did not hear of any official warnings from their government. In some cases, some officials warned people not to listen, and spread rumors about security threats in public places, stressing that the authorities “are dealing with these rumors with utmost seriousness and vigilance, although they are groundless.”

Yet, officials are not aware that the more the people are kept in the dark, the more rumors will spread.

On Monday [Sept. 29], local newspapers mentioned reassurances by Interior Minister Hussein al-Majali who stated, “There are no real security threats on Jordan,” adding that the situation is “good and stable” on the kingdom’s borders.

Newspapers also quoted the cabinet that underlined its confidence in the capabilities of the armed and security agencies to “face the threat of terrorism and terrorist organizations.”

However, newspapers did not make any personal initiative to voice the concerns of Jordanians and some of the people who are against the involvement of Jordan in the military action for ideological reasons or out of spite of the government.

Leftist, national and Islamic parties condemned the decision to take part in the alliance on the grounds that Washington is known for its hostility toward the issue of the Arab nation, mainly the Palestinian issue.

They warned that this would provide the United States with cover to make a military comeback after being defeated in Iraq and “to implement its scheme aiming at reshaping the geopolitical map of the region and undermining the Arab national security.”

However, none of these parties have clearly condemned IS and its horrendous acts or provided a convincing alternative to their anti-US views.

In the meantime, Jordanians have for the first time been asked to state their opinion about the militant groups that have emerged against the backdrop of the Syrian crisis, including IS, Jabhat al-Nusra, the League of the Righteous and the Lebanese Hezbollah, and whether these have affected the security situation in Jordan.

According to the Center for Strategic Studies poll, there is no fundamental split in opinions regarding IS and Jabhat al-Nusra.

The majority of Jordanians consider IS a terrorist group, and is only supported by 7% of people and 4% of Jordanian leaders.

However, there is a different opinion about Jabhat al-Nusra, as 52% could not determine whether the group is a terrorist organization or a legitimate resistance group. Meanwhile, 44% considered it to be a terrorist group, compared to 60% of the leaders who hold the same view.

Hezbollah’s popularity has deteriorated, as 42% of the Jordanian people view it now as a terrorist group, while it had been seen as a legitimate resistance group. The reason behind this shift in views is the party’s stance on the Syrian crisis.

Political commentator Fahd al-Khitan commented on the poll. “If 17% of Jordanians consider Jabhat al-Nusra to be a legitimate resistance, 7% support IS and 15% view al-Qaeda as a resistance, then observers and decision-makers can make a preliminary assessment of the weight of the jihadist Salafist movement and the size of its support base,” he said.

Mohammed Abu Rumman, a researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies and a specialist in Islamic movements, said that “new results were shown in this poll. It showed that Jordanians changed their views about Hezbollah.” This is not to mention the gray zone, as people did not state their stance about IS (28%) or Jabhat al-Nusra (52%).

Abu Rumman urged officials to be vigilant in reading these results as they reflect “two things. The polled people either secretly support these groups, or are confused and do not have an accurate description of them.”

No turning back

Jordan is directly involved in the war, as it is participating in the airstrikes, providing logistical support and exchanging intelligence information, this is not to mention that it is pitting Sunni tribes on Syrian borders against IS.

How does the government expect to overcome this situation if it lost its battle with public opinion, which will be directly affected in case IS seeks revenge?

We have not learned yet about the government’s response to the voices opposed to the airstrikes, as these believe it will only make IS even more extremist, which was the case with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq. This was when the United States took over Iraq, and left it an open courtyard for Iran and militias of all stripes.

How would the government and the media convince the people who believe that this war is targeting Islam and Muslims?

Why are religious and leftist parties keeping silent about condemning IS?

The invasion of IS has become a media war par excellence. Jordan will not make any advances in it, unless it produces professional media coverage based on facts and data, as well as official rhetoric that would deal with the IS threat in terms of economy, society, culture and humanity, without keeping people in the dark.

The war might bring an end to IS and similar groups at the military level, but it will not end its ideology that is deeply rooted in the corners of society, especially among young people, who are searching for job opportunities and social justice to build their future and fight against corruption.

Dealing with such a threat is not limited to military and security efforts. New comprehensive political, economic and educational programs ought to be set forth, in parallel with enlightening religious rhetoric capable of providing alternatives to attract young people. Fighting this threat should not be done through further blackout of media freedoms and insisting that the security solution is the only solution.

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Found in: syria, public opinion, jordan, islamic state
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