In the space of two weeks, two grotesque executions by the Islamic State, the first the immolation of a Jordanian pilot held in Syria and the second the beheading earlier this week of 21 Egyptian guest workers in Libya, have dragged America’s two most militarily competent Arab allies into what appears to be an expanding regional campaign against the self-proclaimed caliphate.
But the deeper involvement of Jordan and Egypt in the fight against the Islamist radicals seems at this juncture unlikely to lead to an expanded campaign by the United States and other members of the anti-Islamic State coalition.
On Tuesday, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi called for the United Nations to organize a coalition to take control of Libya and to drop its ban on sending weapons to Libya, a move that would allow Egypt to openly support a military campaign by a former U.S. resident, Khalifa Hifter, aimed at defeating the Islamist militias that have controlled Libya since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi more than three years ago.
“We have abandoned the Libyan people as prisoners of the militias,” el-Sissi said. “We have to disarm the militias and prevent arms from falling into the hands of extremists.”
That call came at the same time that politicians in Italy, Libya’s former colonial administrator, called for military intervention there to defeat the Islamic State. In recent days, Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti has said Italy is ready to lead a United Nations-sanctioned effort in Libya with a force of 5,000 troops.
But there are many reasons neither initiative is likely to result in an expanded anti-Islamic State campaign. The United States, for one, has been openly dismissive of Hifter, despite his one-time work with the CIA and his long U.S. residency. Among the U.S. concerns are allegations of indiscriminate bombing by Hifter’s forces on Benghazi and his refusal to recognize the internationally recognized Libyan government, which for now has been forced to shelter in Tobruk after a rival government assumed control of Tripoli.
European military experts say Italy is likely incapable of providing a 5,000-strong force to lead any effort in Libya. The Voice of America quoted the head of the Italian Senate’s defense commission as saying 5,000 was all of the stated 105,000-strong Italian military that is now ready to respond, a position outside experts endorse. French defense analyst Etienne de Durand said that with the defense spending cuts of recent years, Italy would have a difficult time supporting such a mission, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said he believes Italy would be involved only as part of a multi-national effort.
No other European government issued a call Tuesday to intervene in Libya.
That leaves Egypt and Jordan to find ways on their own to carry out their vows to avenge their dead.
Egypt responded Monday with airstrikes on the Libyan city of Derna after Sunday’s release of a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who’d been taken hostage in the past two months in the Libyan city of Sirte. The strikes reportedly killed 60, though there is no independent verification of the toll.
There were no new airstrikes on Tuesday.
The quick response recalled Jordan’s reaction after the release Feb. 3 of an Islamic State video showing the death by fire of a captured Jordanian pilot, Moaz al Kasasbeh. Within hours, Jordan’s King Abdullah ordered the execution of two Islamic State-aligned prisoners who’d already been sentenced to death as well as nearly 60 airstrikes on Islamic State targets over a two-day period.
King Abdullah also announced that Jordan, which borders Syria and hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees from that conflict already, would expand its efforts against the Islamic State beyond merely supporting the U.S.-led coalition to an nearly all-out war.
That, however, is unlikely to mean a conventional military operation, said Yasir Abbas, a military analyst for Caerus Associates, a Washington consulting firm. Instead, it’s more likely to rely on its well-trained special operations and intelligence assets to increase pressure on the Islamic State.
“Jordan might expand their operations to include limited ground operations,” he said by email. “Their efforts, we believe, won’t be large and are likely to be limited to special operations inside Syria and Iraq. The costs of conducting rescue operations are extremely high and continue to be risky, considering (the Islamic State’s) military capabilities, so Jordan is unlikely to expand these efforts significantly.”
Jordan might also use its close tribal ties in western Iraq to help weaken support for the Islamic State in a key Sunni Muslim area, but that will require close coordination with and assistance from the United States.
“The king expressed Jordan’s willingness to work with Sunni tribes in Iraq in a meeting with Jordanian tribal leaders, and that might also happen in Syria,” Abbas said. “But without financial support to Jordan from the U.S. or other countries, it will be very difficult for Jordan to provide support to these tribes on its own.”
That means that whatever steps Jordan takes probably will be less than public and reliant on special forces, which one former American adviser said are among the best in the region. “The Jordanians are a cut above, approaching the quality of the Israeli military,” the former adviser said. He asked not to be identified because his role advising the Jordanians is still classified, though he is retired.
“Abdullah is cautious certainly, but after the brutal murder of the pilot, the quick response in hanging the two prisoners tells me that he’s willing to start killing bad guys now and asking questions later,” the former adviser said.
Matthew Schofield contributed to this story from Berlin.