The Cost of Covert Action: Conspiracy and U.S. Credibility in the Middle East

By Lily Lousada

Jordan's desert capital of Amman is only about 60 miles from the Syrian border, but it is a beacon of stability in a convulsing region. The stability is impressive but fragile, interrupted by small signs of tension: a begging Syrian child in the street, or the many suspiciously fit, plain-dressed Westerners, who make little effort to hide their heavy-duty boots or occasional Joint Task Force backpacks.

Peaceful Jordan is also the coordinating base for U.S.-led coalition efforts to counter violent extremism in Syria. That covert campaign has not been going well and the surreptitious approach comes with an often-overlooked cost to U.S. security by providing a foothold for radicalizing conspiracies, not only in Jordan but among moderates in the rest of the region.

The whole region is watching how the United States engages in Syria -- and finding it lacking.

In the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the United States is leading fitfully from behind. The desultory and covert tactics not only seem to prolong the conflict and allow the humanitarian disaster to deteriorate but leave U.S. strategic goals ambiguous. By insisting on a small and quiet footprint in the battle against radical jihadism, the United States has been unable to counter public concern and suspicion about its tactics and motives -- leading to new conspiracy theories in a region where they already flourish as a substitute for actual knowledge of what governments are doing.

Indeed, the lack of transparency, and loss of credibility, allows ISIL to explain U.S. action in its own narratives for recruitment. These narratives are not new, but rather they build fluidly off of founding radical Islamist thought against American Imperialism. For example, Sayyid Qutb, the philosophical forefather of al-Qaeda, called for a violent response to the broad sense of American meddling, through both hard military might and soft power attempts at distracting internal Islamic discourse away from key issues.

For years, the U.S. presence in the Middle East has been controversial. But it has also been assertive and undeniably powerful. Jordan, for example, is the fourth largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world, with an additional $1 billion slated to arrive in fiscal year 2016. Yet now, next to the growing Syrian quagmire and terrifying expansion of Islamic radicalism--considered the greatest threat to U.S. security--America seems to be sinking out of sight.

Jordanians are not used to it. They find it confusing, disturbing, and sometimes frightening--especially with heavy fighting as close as the nearby Syrian city of Dera'a, and mortar shells sometimes falling in northern Jordan. In interviews and informal conversations around Amman, university students, service industry workers, and even members of the Jordanian elite often wonder why America has not directed the same kind of resources and military capability toward taking down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as they have with Arab leaders who have fallen out of fashion before him.

Some of them imagine that for a country as powerful as the United States, there must be a darker reason. As an Amman taxi driver, Abu Fares (not his real name) told me: "America wants ISIL to exist, because they want to control the whole region. Assad lives in his castle, right? And they know where his castle is? So is it not true that they could just destroy it if they really wanted?"

The true geopolitics are of course more complicated. But the Jordanian sense of inaction against Assad, coupled with a lack of transparency about what the United States is actually doing and how, provides fertile ground for conspiracy theories to substitute for facts. The idea of ISIL being a creation of the United States, and particularly of the CIA, is not uncommon. Nor is it entirely without a place in history: Jordanians recall CIA-supported mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan who morphed into followers of al-Qaeda, and the support for contras in Central America.

In a 2015 Jordanian public opinion poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, of those who did not support international intervention against ISIL, the second most popular response given, at 34 percent, was that it is a "conspiracy targeting Muslims and Islam." The most common reason for opposing intervention was a "fear of dragging Jordan into war and instability." In Lebanon, the notion that Hillary Clinton had admitted that the United States created ISIL was so popular that the U.S. Embassy in Beirut circulated a statement disavowing the idea as "patently false," and "a fabrication."

The same skepticism and sense of an underlying conspiracy has also expressed itself in disbelief regarding ISIL's violent tactics. In 2014, The New York Times interviewed young Tunisians who considered beheading videos and other horrifying records of ISIL atrocities to be "manufactured in the West." At that time, Tunisia contributed more recruits to the movement than anywhere else in the world, demonstrating the dangerous link between conspiracies and radicalization, which has been one of ISIL's greatest successes in recruiting and mobilizing followers.

The fact that the United States is in alliance with countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which are often accused of funding ISIL and other violent factions in Syria, has not helped U.S. reputation and security--particularly when these joint efforts fail, as with the embarrassing retreat from programs like that to arm moderate Syrian rebels. But the covert nature of the anti-ISIL effort makes matters worse.

ISIL has not been effectively weakened; in fact, it has even recently gained territory in Libya. Instead, covert action so far has cost the United States in both credibility and security. Thus, while military success remains uncertain, gaining ground in the ideological battle is far from reach--and growing farther with each covert operation.

The United States should move quickly to shift the dynamic in Syria with a transparent strategy and goal, or consider disengaging completely. Until then, the silent war is only ripening conspiracies that rustle across Jordan and the region like a gusty fall wind in the date palms.

Lily Lousada is based in Amman, Jordan where she works on conflict mitigation, socio-political stability, and governance development. She also serves as a Middle East Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.