The Middle East has a serious problem, and it isn’t the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Though one wouldn’t know it by the skewed focus of international media and diplomatic attention, the crisis of the Islamic State dwarfs even the most serious bouts of Israeli-Arab violence.
Over the past several months, the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS), a Sunni Muslim group rejected by Al Qaeda as being too extreme, has not only managed to gain control over much of Iraq and Syria, but has fulfilled the long-held dream of many Sunnis by establishing a "caliphate" that demands the allegiance of all faithful Muslims.
But the Islamic State’s notorious leader, Abu Baker Al-Baghdadi, is not content with the territory he already rules. Al-Baghdadi is thinking big, and has vowed to forcibly spread Islam to the four corners of the world. Iraq was only the first target among many, and the swift defeat of the US-trained and equipped Iraqi military provided the Islamists a major morale boost.
Abdul Alhasan (name changed for security reasons), a member of the Iraqi parliament, explained the easy conquest of key Iraqi cities by pointing a blaming finger at his nation’s unpopular government.
“We poured billions of dollars into military equipment and training, but these fanatics managed to deal us a severe blow. This would not have been possible if the government listened to the will of its people,” said the politician, insisting that Iraq needs to grant greater autonomy to its diverse group of minorities and abandon the American idea of an overbearing central government.
Instead, Baghdad has strongly suppressed calls for greater regional autonomy, sparking violent clashes and dangerous shifts in allegiances. This has only made the Islamic State’s job easier, with some factions preferring the caliphate to their own government. It would appear that a unified Iraq’s days are numbered.
And while Alhassan and others remain optimistic that Iraq still has a fighting chance, the Islamic State is already moving on to new targets in its assaults on Jordanian border towns. The goal is clear: topple Jordan’s monarch and annex the territory of the Hashemite Kingdom in a march that inevitably leads to Israel.
In a face-to-face showdown, Jordan’s well-trained military and substantial regional and international backing should be too much for the Islamic State to overcome. The real threat is the Islamic State gaining supporters within Jordan. “Mass demonstrations in support of the Islamic State have already taken place in the Jordanian city of Maan,” notes Dr. Mordechai Kedar, an expert on Islam at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.
Kedar stresses that many Palestinian and Syrian refugees residing in the Kingdom are angry over the way Jordanian authorities handle their miserable living conditions, "forcing thousands to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State, which they view as a solution to their problems."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been monitoring the developments closely, vowed to help Jordan in curbing the rising threat. "Israel realizes that one day we may all wake up to find the Islamic State on our borders," says Kedar. "The real danger is that Palestinians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and even inside Israel proper may support the Islamic State, shattering Israel's security."
According to the pundit, it might be in Israel’s interests to tackle this threat militarily before it has a chance to gain a foothold West of the Jordan River. While such a decision hasn’t been taken yet, rumors are that Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the US have established an operations center in Amman with the aim of developing plans to defeat the Islamic State.
The Islamic State has asserted that its present focus is dealing with apostate Muslim countries, but there is no doubt the jihadist horde is inching ever closer to the Jewish state.
UPDATE: In fact, the Islamic State has already reached Gaza, the West Bank and Israel proper. In the upcoming issue of Israel Today Magazine, we interview an Islamic State member active in the Gaza Strip.
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