A captured Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot is the first casualty of the U.S.-led coalition airstrike operation against the hard-line Islamic State group known as ISIS or ISIL.
Islamic State extremists claimed to have shot down the the Jordanian F-16 fighter jet over their Syrian stronghold of Raqaa on Wednesday and to have captured the pilot. But a U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) statement said "evidence clearly indicates that ISIL did not down the aircraft."
The CENTCOM commander, General Lloyd J. Austin III, said, "We strongly condemn the actions of ISIL, which has taken captive the downed pilot. We will support efforts to ensure his safe recovery, and will not tolerate ISIL's attempts to misrepresent or exploit this unfortunate aircraft crash for their own purposes."
U.S. officials said the cause of the crash wasn't known.
However, Jordanian Information Minister Mohammad Momani told al-Arabiya TV that a “missile fired from the ground” caused the plane to go down. He added that “efforts to rescue the pilot were unsuccessful.” He stressed that he hoped “intelligence work would succeed in gaining the pilot's release.”
The militants have shot down Syrian government warplanes and helicopters in the past, in addition to Iraqi government helicopters.
Social media images
News of the capture spread quickly over social media, where images were available of a young man being pulled half naked from water and surrounded by armed men.
The Islamic State claimed the man was the pilot and released pictures that it said showed its fighters holding him. One picture showed the man surrounded by more than a dozen fighters, some of them masked. A photograph of his military identification card was also released.
The Raqqa Media Center of the Islamic State group, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, released a photograph of the Jordanian military identity card of pilot Mu’ath Safi Yousef al-Kaseasbeh in Raqqa, Syria, Dec. 24,
Arab TV channels said that the pilot was pulled out of the Euphrates River after ejecting.
Relatives, saying they had been notified of the incident by the head of the Jordanian air force, confirmed that the man in the photos was First Lieutenant Mu'ath al- Kasaesbeh, 26. The army separately confirmed his name.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday urged the pilot's Islamic State captors to treat him humanely, his spokesman said.
The secretary-general "calls on his captors to treat the pilot in accordance with international humanitarian law,” spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Both the Syrian government and the U.S.-led coalition set up to fight Islamic State regularly bomb Islamic State targets in Raqqa province.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, up to December 15, partner nations Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been responsible for 65 airstrikes in Syria. The United States has conducted 553.
The airstrikes are part of the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve, which aims to defeat the Islamic State, help Iraq defend its borders and prevent another group like ISIS from forming.
Between August 8 and December 14, U.S. and partner nations flew some 12,850 sorties over Iraq and Syria. Only 1,276 of those have resulted in airstrikes. Partner nations are responsible for approximately 14 percent of all strikes across Iraq and Syria.
Search for targets
Air Force Colonel Edward Sholtis told VOA in an email that many of the strikes involve dynamic targeting, "which basically means strike aircraft fly around areas near where enemy forces are operating and look for targets."
Finding, identifying and tracking those targets until approval is received to strike requires specialized equipment and training, so "frequently they do not result in a necessary strike on ISIL forces, equipment or facilities."
Andrew Liepman, a senior policy analyst with the RAND Corporation, said Washington and its allies are trying at all costs to avoid collateral damage.
"It's a lot harder to identify, to distinguish between the communities and ISIL, so we are being extremely careful, I suspect," Liepman told VOA.
"The tolerance for collateral damage in both Syria and Iraq is really, really low. We do not want to accidentally drop a bomb on the wrong guys," he added. "So that means a lot of planes are coming back to base without having dropped their munitions."
According to the Department of Defense, from December 5 through December 12, airstrikes destroyed some 14 Islamic State fighting units and positions and hit another 15 in Syria, and destroyed four such units and hit another 14 in Iraq.
The airstrikes also destroyed a number of IS-controlled buildings, bunkers, fortifications, guard towers, vehicles, excavators, bulldozers and a front loader.
Liepman says no one should underestimate the value of destroying bulldozers and excavators. "Those things they use for protection, for digging trenches, for threatening villages, for doing lots of things," he said.
$1 billion so far
The total cost of one week of operations: roughly $65 million. Defense officials said the operations have cost more than $1 billion since August 8, when U.S. began its airstrikes. That cost, Liepman said, is easily absorbable.
When asked about how many Islamic State militants had been killed in the campaign, a spokeswoman for Operation Inherent Resolve said it was not clear.
"We are not providing enemy body counts. Any estimate would be speculative and extremely imprecise due to our limited ability to verify such counts," spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Peggy Kageleiry said in an email.
The CIA estimates that the Islamic State currently has between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters.
According to IHS Jane's Intelligence Review, there has been "no significant change in the tempo of Islamic State operations since the airstrikes began." Rather, the group has shown an ability to quickly adapt its tactics and replace senior commanders killed by Iraqi forces and airstrikes.
Although the strikes will limit the militants' mobility, IHS said, those strikes on their own are unlikely to weaken the group's grip over urban areas, and will enable the Islamic State to exploit its "war against Islam" narrative to recruit more fighters.
Karl Mueller, a senior political scientist for RAND, said the fight would be a long one.
"ISIS is a particularly nasty manifestation of a political and ideological movement that's not going to go away just because ISIS is destroyed. So this is a particular fight within this larger arena of the struggle against Islamic extremism," Mueller told VOA.
Edward Yeranian in Cairo and Jeff Seldin in Washington contributed to this report. Some material for this report came from AP and Reuters.