When ISIS thugs burned a Jordanian pilot alive inside a cage and released a video of the murder Tuesday, it could have marked a historic turning point in the fight against the jihadis.
The grisly video enraged the victim's tribe, along with Arabs across the region. Even Jordanians who opposed their king's participation in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS condemned the depraved killing. Prominent Muslim clerics denounced it as a gross violation of Islam.
So some pundits surmised that the video would rally Arab leaders and publics to unite in battle against the jihadis.
In theory, this sounds plausible. But without a coherent U.S. strategy to fight ISIS, this moment will be lost.
There are several reasons the death of Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh should galvanize the region. For one thing, the handsome military pilot was a Muslim, so his killing resonates there far more than beheadings of Western hostages.
For another, ISIS overplayed its hand. It clearly intended to humiliate Jordan for joining the U.S.-led military coalition and sending planes to strike ISIS, while signaling to other Arab countries that they should stay out of the fight lest their pilots meet a similar fate. But the sadism of the murder - making the pilot watch as the flames lapped a trail of gasoline into the cage - inspired tribal calls for retaliation. Clerics denounced ISIS for having disregarded Quranic rules on the treatment of prisoners of war.
So for now, says former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher, "public opinion wants revenge - wants the government to go after ISIS."
But the Jordanian government can do little more than it is already doing: participating in air strikes against ISIS, sharing intelligence, and helping the United States train moderate Syrian rebels. Indeed, burdened with 1.3 million Syrian refugees, tiny Jordan needs more U.S. (and Arab) aid just to continue its current role.
Moreover, Kaseasbeh's death won't rally broader Arab support for the anti-ISIS fight unless the White House shows greater commitment to that struggle. A key ally in the U.S.-led coalition, the United Arab Emirates, suspended its air strikes against ISIS in December, after Kaseasbeh was shot down. The reason: The United States hadn't put proper assets in place in northern Iraq to rescue downed pilots.
That contradictory U.S. approach - urging its Arab allies to fight ISIS in the air and on the ground, but not giving them the necessary support - makes Arab governments and tribes wary of engaging the jihadis. Arabs are uncertain about what Obama wants in the region given the contradictions of American policy. This is especially true of Sunni tribes in Syria and Iraq - some of them related to Jordanian tribes - which the administration is counting on to rebel against ISIS.
Yet the current U.S. approach discourages Sunni tribes under ISIS control from taking up the fight against the jihadis. There is no American policy of engaging and coordinating tribal opposition and linking it with coalition air strikes. Tribes that do rebel cannot match ISIS's weapons (most of which were seized from U.S.-supplied depots in Iraq) and are often slaughtered.
Here are two gruesome examples: 322 members of the Albu Nimr tribe were massacred in Iraq's Anbar province when they ran out of bullets while fighting ISIS in October, while 700 of Syria's Shaitat tribe were beheaded, crucified, and shot after they revolted against ISIS in August. The Shaitat got no Western arms or supportive air strikes and received scant coverage in the Western press.
So don't expect a wider Sunni tribal revolt against ISIS unless the White House gets its strategy together. In Iraq, the administration is relying on a nearly defunct national army (plus the Kurds) to battle ISIS, while the real ground fighting is being done by Shiite militias backed by Iran.
"The Shia militias are as brutal as ISIS, which keeps Iraqi tribal leaders from rising against ISIS," said Rick Welch, a retired colonel and Green Beret who served several tours in Iraq and is known for his expertise on Sunni tribes. The militias are often as keen to kill Sunni villagers as they are to fight ISIS.
Iraqi tribal leaders, says Welch, are waiting to see whether new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will be more inclusive of Sunnis and will finally arm tribal national guards to fight ISIS. (So far, Iran and its Iraqi Shiite proxies have nixed this, and the United States has done little to hasten the process.)
As for Syrian tribes that are willing to fight ISIS, Welch says he sees no U.S. strategy to aid them. He says the United States has the ability to pull together tribal leaders in Syria and Iraq and build a force that could, and wants to, fight ISIS. "But we have to be willing to say we're going to do this." Welch adds. "We're going through the motions but aren't too serious yet."
I agree. And that is why the burning of Kaseasbeh, however shocking, won't mark a turning point in the fight against ISIS - unless there is a turning point in Washington first.