One of the weaknesses of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State is that America isn’t trusted as a messenger in much of the Arab world. So it is important that Jordan’s King Abdullah II seems ready to play an unusually visible role in organizing Arab opposition to the extremists.
Abdullah is moving against the jihadists on two fronts, ideological and military. He is bolstered by a rare national consensus in Jordan after Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh was burned alive in a cage by the jihadists. The pilot was from a bedrock tribal family in the East Bank town of Karak, and his death angered and unified the country. Jordanians who have been carrying placards saying, “We are all Muath,” seem to mean it.
What’s crucial about Jordan’s new activism is that it could give the coalition an Arab and Muslim face, rather than just an American one. The United States is viewed with such deep suspicion in the region that Arab leaders who cooperate too openly are often branded as puppets of the “Crusaders.” At some political risk, Abdullah has decided to break that taboo.
The ideological side of the campaign will begin with an effort to gather a core group of Arab and Muslim countries that share opposition to the Islamic State. In addition to Jordan, this nucleus would likely include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Pakistan.
This Muslim coalition plans to convene a conference within the next month or so at Al-Azhar University in Egypt, which for centuries has been the arbiter of mainstream Sunni doctrine. The hope is that Al-Azhar would provide religious authority for a continuing battle against extremism. The United States would help the coalition create a global network of counter-messaging centers. This approach will be discussed this week at a White House conference on countering violent extremism.
On the military side, the Jordanians have for weeks been bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria. But a more important move may be their effort to work with the Iraqi government to arm and train a Sunni “national guard” that can eventually help liberate Sunni areas that were overrun last year by the Islamic State. This cooperation with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad would once have been heresy for Jordan.
The Jordanians seem convinced that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, though friendly with Iran, is also serious about outreach to Sunnis. The groundwork for cooperation was laid when Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi visited Amman in December. Gen. Mashal al-Zaben, Jordan’s military chief of staff, paid a reciprocal visit to Baghdad last week to negotiate details of the training plan. But the deal hasn’t been pinned down yet, which makes some Sunnis worry that it’s just talk.
Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq are caught between their resentment of Islamic State fighters who have seized their towns and their mistrust of Abadi’s government. This ambivalence was evident Friday when I interviewed two tribal leaders, Sheikh Zaydan al-Jibouri and Jalal al-Gaood. They were wary of cooperating with Baghdad so long as Abadi allows Shiite militias to operate in Anbar province. An angry Jibouri showed grisly cellphone pictures of the corpses of two members of his tribe who had been brutally murdered a week earlier by Shiite militiamen in Ramadi.
But Sunni support for cooperation seemed to increase Friday night after more than 50 tribal sheikhs met in Amman with the governor of Anbar province and the head of the governing council there. The visiting Iraqis said that the Sunni speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Salim al-Jibouri, would convene a Baghdad conference soon to rally resistance to the jihadists. The sheikhs came away encouraged.
The dealbreaker is the expanding role across Iraq of the Shiite militias. If Abadi can’t prevent these Iranian-backed fighters from operating in Sunni areas, the budding alliance between Amman and Baghdad is likely to fail. It’s an example of the central dilemma in the U.S. strategy, which requires cooperation between two groups that have been fighting a sectarian war.
Until there’s solid evidence that Abadi is serious about arming a Sunni national guard and containing the Shiite militias, I’m skeptical about whether this strategy will work. But I agree with Gaood, a leader of the Albu Nimr tribe that was ravaged last fall by the extremists. Even after such disasters, he told me, if a just balance can be found in Iraq, “we are all brought back from the brink.”