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On Jordan’s willingness to hand over Sajida to ISIS

The Jordanian government had but very few options to handle the crisis and all are painful, embarrassing and mired by unsure outcomes

Raed Omari

Published: Updated:

Many observers, myself included, cast doubt on Jordan’s gameness to respond positively to the prisoner swap the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to release “sister” Sajida Mubarak al-Rishawi in the kingdom’s jails. Much of the doubt stemmed from the way ISIS orchestrated the prisoner swap demand which revealed a lot of blackmailing and “cunning” maneuvering with the aim of embarrassing and placing heavy pressure on the active U.S.-led anti ISIS alliance member Jordan.

It is really such a strange prisoner swap with Jordan that ISIS has offered. The radical group did not include in the bargain the Jordanian pilot Maaz al-Kassasbeh it captured in December 24 after his F-16 was downed while carrying out a mission over the Syrian province of Raqqa. Jordan’s perplexity and uncertainty began after ISIS offered to hand over “only” the Japanese hostage Kenji Goto in exchange of al-Rishawi with the pilot excluded, threatening to kill Maaz al-Kassasbeh and Goto if the Jordanian government refuses to release her within 24 hours.

Absurdity of ISIS’ demand

What must be added to the absurdity of ISIS’ demand is its inclination to swap Goto for Sajida and not for money as it has previously requested before beheading the other Japanese hostage Haruna Yukawa. ISIS has demanded a $200 million ransom in exchange for the two hostages’ lives and now it is offering Jordan, not Japan, to trade the remaining one for al-Rishawi. Why the strange offer? Why has Jordan been included? Vaguely enough too, ISIS has never requested Jordan to release al-Rishawi or any other jailed person for the al-Kassasbeh during the entire 34 days he has been captive despite the speculation about such move being the only option Jordan has to ensure a safe return of its pilot. Why is this abruptly and unexpectedly happening now is the question that mystified Jordan!

There is no doubt that Jordan has decoded ISIS’s concealed intentions behind the prisoner swap relayed in the recording and that is what encouraged the state agencies’ prudence in handling the issue. Yet perplexity dominated the scene. It was not that difficult for Jordan – as for many observers – to realize that ISIS’ ultimate objective is to embarrass Amman, playing on its sensitive relationship with Tokyo (Japan is a major donor to Jordan), its active membership in the U.S.-led coalition and, more importantly, on the internal tension the issue might cause if the Jordanian government is seen by Jordanian people, especially among the tribes to which Maaz belongs, as not doing enough to bring the pilot back unharmed.

Jordan’s dilemma is that it is forced to deal with a militia – not a state – that seeks attention and recognition

Raed Omari

Within such supposedly shrewd ISIS intentions behind the prisoner swap, that even the Jordanian public has decoded, the Jordanian government had but very few options to handle the crisis and all are painful, embarrassing and mired by unsure outcomes. Following the broadcast of the video of ISIS announcing the “embarrassing” prisoner swap with Jordan, the whole of Jordan – the official and public – was shaken by the news, analyzing the situation and trying to project a scenario about what would follow. The tension in Jordan reached a climax when relatives of the pilot issued an ultimatum to the government to clarify its position on the deal offered especially amidst news reports about pressure by Japan on Jordan to hand over Sajida to ISIS to have Goto released.

Under-the-table options

From what I understand, Jordan has its “under-the-table” options to address the crisis, including its indirect contact with ISIS through mediating Iraqi and Syrian tribesmen and clergymen but the Jordanian government’s announced response to the whole issue was, in my estimation, wise and sensible.

The Jordanian government did not turn ISIS’ offer down because it might be accused by Jordanians as not seriously considering an issue that could lead to Maaz’s release but at the same time it did not bow to the radical organization’s demand to release Sajida in exchange of the Japanese hostage with a promise from the group to Jordan to keep the pilot alive. The Jordanian government has instead “reworded” ISIS’ offer and acted accordingly, offering to swap Sajidah with Maaz this time. The Jordanian government has issued an official statement, carrying its reworded deal with ISIS.

ISIS, seeing Jordan escaping the intended embarrassment, has been reported as threatening to kill the pilot during a phone call one of its leaders made with the pilot’s uncle on Tuesday and has reportedly blamed that on “the Jordanian government’s stubbornness.” Although it is hard to verify the character of ISIS’ leader, his message, if true, indicated clearly that Sajida was not the militia’s ultimate goal behind the deal inasmuch as it is to pressure and embarrass Jordan.

Now it seems that this is all what Jordan can and is willing to do: Sajida for Maaz and the Japanese hostage included. However, the coming few hours might bring about new developments and surprises. Jordan’s dilemma is that it is forced to deal with a militia – not a state – that seeks attention and recognition of an “arbitrary” existence.

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Raed Omari is a Jordanian journalist, political analyst, parliamentary affairs expert, and commentator on local and regional political affairs. His writing focuses on the Arab Spring, press freedoms, Islamist groups, emerging economies, climate change, natural disasters, agriculture, the environment and social media. He is a writer for The Jordan Times, and contributes to Al Arabiya English. He can be reached via raed_omari1977@yahoo.com, or on Twitter @RaedAlOmari2

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.