Jordan Needs U.S. Drones to Fight ISIS

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator drone.

Soon after Islamic State propagandists released a video in February of a captured and caged Jordanian pilot being burned alive, the Obama administration pledged full support to Jordan—a critical Middle East ally threatened by the terrorist army of Islamic State, or ISIS. But the administration has failed to live up to that commitment.

Despite repeated requests and impassioned pleas, the administration has refused to sell Jordan the drones—specifically, remotely piloted Predator and Reaper aircraft—that will allow deeper infiltration into ISIS territory to conduct surveillance and strikes. These systems, as U.S. operations against al Qaeda in Africa and elsewhere have shown, are crucial in fighting terrorists.

Why Jordan, an important U.S. ally, is being denied these systems is a puzzle. On its flank are Syria and Iraq, two countries largely overrun by ISIS. Jordan also shares borders with Saudi Arabia and Israel, which makes it a buffer of sorts between the Jewish state and its enemies. Like much of Europe, Jordan is struggling to deal with Iraqi and Syrian refugees, now 10% of its population and growing. If Jordan is overrun by ISIS and its extremist allies, the destabilization of the region would accelerate.

The reasons to support Jordan with drone technology could not be more apparent. What might be causing the administration to hold back?

The export of drones is most often restricted under the Missile Technology Control Regime—a voluntary agreement among 34 countries intended to prevent the proliferation of technology capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction. While unmanned systems are “licensed for export only on rare occasions,” the control regime doesn’t forbid the export of drone technology. And if ISIS’s threatening the stability of much of the Middle East and a massive refugee crisis spilling over into Europe doesn’t qualify as a “rare occasion,” what does? The Obama administration and its successors are free to allow sales of unmanned aviation vehicles to Jordan or other U.S. allies.

The administration’s hesitation has weakened its influence in the region and created a vacuum that is being filled by others. China recently unveiled its version of the Reaper drone, the Caihong 5, capable of carrying bombs and missiles and traveling up to 2,100 miles. Jordan has expressed interest in buying the Caihong 5 if the U.S. refuses to export the Reaper. Recent news reports say Israel has agreed to sell drones to Jordan, specifically the Heron TP, although Israeli officials haven’t confirmed the sale.

Damage has been done to U.S. relations with Jordan, but the simple act of approving drone exports would prevent further harm. If Jordanian policy, like President Obama’s, is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, why is the Obama administration refusing to provide an ally with the tools to do just that?