Earlier this month, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) burned the captured Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh alive, filmed his execution with cinematic levels of production, and released the video worldwide. The brutality of the act was shocking, even for ISIS, and drew immediate outrage from all members of the international community. In Jordan, calls for vengeance were swift. Demonstrators throughout the country demanded retribution and the spokesman for the Jordanian Armed Forces vowed that al-Kasasbeh’s “blood will not be shed in vain.”
Within hours, Jordan executed two prisoners convicted of terrorism and promised that the response “will [continue to] be strong, decisive and swift.” Jordanian courts had sentenced one prisoner to death in 2005, and the other in 2007, so both were awaiting execution on death row. However, their hasty executions hours after the video was released and the language of high-level Jordanian officials confirm that revenge was a primary motivation for the executions and the subsequent air strikes against ISIS targets.
In an armed conflict, detainees must be protected from murder, torture, and other forms of cruel or degrading treatment. Thus, ISIS’s murder of al-Kasasbeh was a clear violation of international law and dignity. However, the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) is wary of the precedent that Jordan’s response may set for Syria going forward. While justice will be an important aspect of the reconciliation process in Syria, it must comprise processes that conform to and promote the rule of law rather than act on blood lust or in vengeful retaliation. Some members of the anti-ISIS coalition have lauded Jordan’s decisive actions, and the United States denied any wrongdoing on the part of Jordan’s leaders. Statements such as those by the United States and others overlook how Jordan’s reaction has affected perceptions among Syrians who are closely following these events.
Regionally, governments have set bad examples for how to implement justice processes, and Jordan’s recent behavior is just the latest demonstration of a poor response to extremism. In the Middle East, countless instances of judiciaries’ institutional corruption and their failures to adhere to consistent processes have created the perception that the people must take justice into their own hands, otherwise the perpetrator will escape justice. Even before Jordan’s hastily-staged executions, some Syrians viewed a Muammar Qaddafi-style, on-the-spot execution as preferable to a corrupt process whereby a former leader escapes punishment, as was the case in Egypt.
Jordan’s response to ISIS,therefore, may only affirm Syrians’ desire for revenge. Shortly after the video was released, Syrian Kurds, who have been battling ISIS in Kobane, promised to carry out revenge attacks “on behalf of the martyr al-Kasasbeh.” Many others, including al-Kasasbeh’s father, have demanded revenge. While such sentiments might be understandable, the immediate executions and increased bombing campaign as a method of vengeance show the state bending to these desires. When a state punishes violators responsible for crimes, one of its primary purposes and duties is to enforce retribution on behalf of the victims through formal mechanisms governed by clear standards and laws. These processes require that criminals be punished for only their own crimes and not for the crimes of others and that a government not succumb to its own sense of injury and/or that of its people. Now that Jordan has demonstrated that its system can be used for vengeance, what will stop other Jordanians or Syrians from demanding revenge executions of their own?
As Syria’s conflict continues with no resolution in sight, patience for transitional justice is fading. A recent SJAC study to be released on February 19th indicates growing anger and a hardening resolve for an all-or-nothing fight to the finish when compared to Syrians surveyed last year. With supporters of sides in the Syrian conflict increasingly desirous of revenge and retribution against the other, the likelihood of effective transitional justice processes could be put at risk. By documenting crimes perpetrated by all parties and conducting outreach to Syrians and the international community on transitional justice processes, SJAC promotes measured and transparent responses to ISIS, opposition, and regime atrocities that will lay the groundwork for long term stability and impartiality in Syria.