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Monday, December 29, 2014

New concerns emerge following ISIS’ downing of Jordanian plane



A picture taken on December 24, 2014 reportedly shows an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria fighter collecting pieces from the remains of a Jordanian warplane from the US led coalition after it was shot down in Syria's Raqqa region. . AFP PHOTO / RMC / STR
Published Monday, December 29, 2014
The downing of a Jordanian plane by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) raises many questions about the group’s improved military capabilities, the ability of the US-led coalition to continue with the airstrikes, the fate of the captured pilot, and the Jordanian government’s options to secure his release. So far, however, Amman seems to be alone in this ordeal.
The downing of a Jordanian plane by ISIS and the capture of its pilot, Lieutenant Moath al-Kasassbeh, continues to be a main topic of discussion in and outside Jordan. The Jordanian people did not heed the public prosecutor’s decision, which bans the circulation of any information released by ISIS about Kasassbeh, or the publication of military analyses related to the incident. The downing of the plane was also widely discussed outside Jordan, namely in Syria and Iraq, which included sarcastic comments about the pilot and gloating over his capture.
The incident raises a number of questions which require a serious discussion. Does ISIS have the ability to target modern fighter jets? Why, for instance, wasn’t a US aircraft downed given the US’ key role in the coalition compared to that of Jordan? Will this incident be a turning point in the course of the aerial campaign against the hardline group? What will Kasassbeh’s fate be?
As far as the first two questions are concerned, it’s worth noting that the downed aircraft is outdated, even though it is an F-16 model. This model used by the Jordanian air force is the first generation F-16 and F-16 B manufactured in the late 1970s, and are thus much older than their Turkish, Israeli, and Emirati counterparts. Many countries have retired these two generations of aircraft. Furthermore, these were not new planes purchased by Jordan, but were acquired from the Netherlands, Belgium, and other countries after they were put out of service.
Jordan also received some of these planes from the US based on long-term lease contracts. In other words, the aircraft shot down by ISIS last week is almost certainly an old aircraft that has passed its useful service life, has not been upgraded, and is not equipped with protection devices that can warn the pilot of incoming anti-aircraft missiles. Also, the Jordanian aircraft was flying at a low altitude, and was thus within the range of the Chinese FN-6 shoulder-fired missiles seized by ISIS from its enemies in the eastern province, who had obtained them from Qatar through Sudan. This information is based on military analyst reports and a New York Times article published on August 12, 2013. The missiles’ maximum operating range is 6 kilometers (3.72 miles) and the maximum operating altitude is 4 km (2.48 miles).

With the capture of Lt. Kasassbeh by ISIS, the Jordanian government finds itself alone, facing difficult choices.

The Jordanian pilot’s young age, 26-years-old, thus his lack of experience and insufficient flight hours may explain his wrong decision to fly low and thus fall within ISIS’ missile range. Technical problems are also a possibility but a plane crashing suddenly while flying is a rare and unlikely occurrence, especially if it falls over the theater of operations. Perhaps ISIS fired at the aircraft prompting the pilot to carry out a sharp escape maneuver which caused the plane to malfunction and crash. However, technical failure without an emergency occurrence is unlikely.
The importance of a pilot’s experience and its precedence over an aircraft’s age become evident when we look at the Syrian air force where the pilots carrying out airstrikes are ranked lieutenant colonels and higher. Perhaps this explains why ISIS has not been able to shoot down one Syrian aircraft after nearly a month of battles around Deir Ezzor’s airport for example.
The Jordanian aircraft incident appears, from the above-mentioned details, to be a special case that does not apply to the more modern planes and more experienced personnel of other coalition countries such as the US, France and the Gulf states. As evidence, other coalition partners have flown a large number of sorties against ISIS and their planes have not been targeted. For example, the US alone flew more than 3,800 sorties just in the first month of the campaign. Besides, ISIS did not obtain modern anti-aircraft weapons except for the shoulder-fired type like the FN-6 missiles and machine guns on four-wheel drive vehicles. Therefore, the threat posed by the group to coalition planes is a limited one and does not surpass the threat posed by Taliban in Afghanistan. It is safe to say that the coalition’s air campaign will probably not be affected by the downing of the Jordanian aircraft. However, the incident raises questions about the degree of actual coordination between coalition partners and of US supervision. If there were a war room actually overseeing the details of what is happening, the Jordanian pilot would not have been allowed to fly this low or the war room would have been aware that ISIS in this targeted area possesses anti-aircraft missiles.
Answering these questions is likely to be speculative so it is best to leave them for another time and focus instead on the following, more pressing question. What will be the fate of Kasassbeh and will Jordan continue to participate in the air campaign against ISIS?
With the capture of Lt. Kasassbeh by ISIS, the Jordanian government finds itself alone, facing difficult choices. From the start, Jordan’s participation in the US-led coalition against ISIS did not receive popular support, especially given Amman’s paradoxical position – to put it mildly – of smuggling weapons and fighters, including extremist fighters, into Syria. This prompted some Jordanian leftist movements to criticize the Jordanian army’s participation in the coalition. Popular support for ISIS in Jordan has increased recently, particularly in the Maan region, which further complicates the Jordanian political scene. 


The extremist group has avoided so far giving any hints about the fate of the captured pilot preferring to keep the matter pending. It is not known whether ISIS will repeat what it did with Western prisoners, whom they kept in captivity for over a year before beheading them or whether the Jordanian pilot’s case is different. We might be surprised to know, as some leaks indicate, that a ruling has actually been issued against Kasassbeh. Perhaps due to these complications, the Jordanian official position seems muddled. 
The minister of Awqaf and Islamic affairs for example said in the Friday sermon that ISIS slaughters civilians in Syria and Iraq and that the Prophet Muhammad accepted ransom in return for prisoners. The minister appeared to be simultaneously inciting against ISIS while hoping the group would pardon the prisoner.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition

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