Keeping ISIS defeated in Syria and Iraq, an interview with Coalition spokesman Caggins
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
On November 17 I spoke to Col. Myles B. Caggins III, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the 81-member coalition to defeat ISIS. A piece based on the interview was published on November 23. The full transcript of the discussion is interesting as it sheds light on some of the concerns across Iraq and Syria today as the Coalition continues to focus on defeating ISIS sleeper cells while balancing others issues across complex areas.
Can you tell us about your Syria trip?
The backdrop of the trip was that policy has been shifting in Syria and policy was to move out of northern and western areas where we have closed bases, such as in Tabqa, Raqqa, Lefarge cement factory, Manbij and the Kobani landing zone, the Air base near Sarrin. We’ve announced that those were closed. We have re-balanced some forces into the eastern part of Syria where we are partnered with the Syrian Democratic Forces and continue partnership in Deir Ezzor and Hasakah. And through that partnership of Coalition troops in eastern Syria, the troops live on SDF bases, so the partnership never broke or was severed.
For a while we slowed the pace of the defeat-ISIS operations because the SDF was focused on what is happening along the border [with Turkey] but the presence and partnership remained and through back end Intel and logistics we have been developing understanding of ISIS activities and we will see in weeks ahead that we will do more partnered activities in Dear Ezzor. We are protecting critical infrastructure that includes key bridges or electrical or water, as well as oil. All of that used to be under control of ISIS. We continue to want to deny ISIS any access to revenue generating sources.
Critical infrastructure includes prisons and detention facilities where SDF have taken responsibility of guarding and securing safely and humanely 10,000 ISIS members.
The US said 15,000 ISIS members in the past, how many do you estimate now?
[Not a exact figure] in the number of ISIS, but what we are seeing is sleeper cells and small groups and hideouts in the deserts and embedded in civilian population and they are not…despite wanting to resurge, they are unable to do that due to relentless pressure applied by the SDF and in Iraq by Iraqi Security forces. We have disrupted their finance, logistics and propaganda and communications. The small raids you don’t hear about upend operations and goals of ISIS to launch sophisticated attacks, to get control of neighborhoods and villages.
Who pays for the facilities?
For the inner workings of the detention you’d have to ask Mustafa Bali. The U.S. supports the SDF through congressionally approved stipends that pay the salaries of the prison guards; however, many of the detention facilities are makeshift and not designed for detention operations—the SDF is managing this important mission by cobbling together whatever resources they can spare.
So the oil helps them run civilians?
They get millions from oil revenue and it is essential to finance their operations and governance and securing detention facilities.
What about the training. Is it ongoing?
When the US or Coalition advises and trains it is based on the partner force availability and scheduling and needs, so the SDF has stated publicly that it had to re-align forces to respond to activities in the border region and we shuffled some forces around inside Syria, so as we are continuing our shift in forces, we have the opportunity to resume some training, at a larger scale but it is up to the partner. In areas away from the border in Deir Ezzor and Al-Tanf with the MAT (Revolutionary Commando Army جيش مغاوير الثورة) we continue to do training, I witnessed some training of urban infantry tactics between Coalition and SDF and advisors in Deir Ezzor.
What’s happening in Tel Tamr, and areas where the US and Russia and Turkey are next to each other?
The US and Coalition have been in proximity of Russia, regime and Turkey and there are longstanding protocols we deconflict ground and air movements and the de-confliction process of email, letters, phone calls, and those letters signed by generals is designed to prevent escalations and mishaps and unnecessary confrontations and for the most part this has worked well. Clearly in portions of eastern Syria were the M4 highway is, it gets tighter toward the border, we have to do more de-confliction and emails and calls, to make sure there are no miscalculations, so it’s important to imagine this as continuously happening day and night, not just a once-a-week summit in the zone of liasons, of sharing movements of our troops with each other.
But there are groups there the US is not used to communicating with such as these militias and the regime?
So the Turkish backed militias are in the area and through our de-confliction with Turkey our messages can get to them, and we monitor front line trace and movements and we monitor movements throughout the region. So far, so good, and it is an active process and an area of focus for Coalition and leaders and others.
We heard the Russians have a deal in Tel Tamr?
I can’t comment on the Tel Tamr. Speak to them about movements. The Coalition is not involved in the safe zone implementation. There are separate agreements with other countries involved, we may transit through areas in the safe zone and only for defeat ISIS, such as logistics, it must be about defeating ISIS.
So the US doesn’t deal with this ceasefire even though people keep telling us there is no ceasefire?
So we are not party to the ceasefire. We are not a party to agreements made by other actors but we put forth our principles and enduring philosophy that military forces should avoid at all possible civilian casualties.
But like Rmeilan infrastructure, there too?
Our current partnership in Deir Ezzor and Hasakah and the infrastructure in it, such as water, oil, prisons and facilities, that’s what we work to ensure that it is secure and doesn’t fall into the hands of ISIS.
Some SDF partners have expressed concerns about being targeted by drones, for instance by Turkey, what does that mean in areas the US works with them?
If there are activities outside of say Kobani where we no longer are, then the SDF sorts out those movements with people in the other groups. For areas where we are partnered directly and we share joint patrols, then our de-confliction process deals with whoever we are partnered with, that’s a dynamic environment, we’ve had discussions with Coalition and the SDF and about what our expectations are and they are clear and the understanding is we partner in Hasakah and Deir Ezzor. For instance, you saw my press conference with Kino Gabriel and Mustafa Bali.
And that includes the KRG’s Faysh Khabour, the road to the KRG in Iraq? So there wont be drone strikes in those areas, that’s the expectation?
What struck you most or surprised you there in Syria?
I wouldn’t call it surprises, it’s important for people to know the Military to Military partnership and physical co-location has NOT changed except those areas we left, but in Deir Ezzor we live on the same bases and train, socialize and partner with the SDF and they protected us on their bases and they do security.
And its even more secure now with the Bradleys
Now we have Bradleys and Mechanized infantry and a variety of conventional military capabilities, such as Apache helicopters and artillery and the vehicles, and bringing this type of capability gives maneuver and survivability and firepower and we still have a good presence of special operations to concentrate on advise and train partnered forces and conduct raids from time to time against specific targets.
Are French and UK Special Forces present, what happened to their special forces?
I can’t get into the force composition, but the participation doesn’t have to happen from inside Syria, we have aviation can participate in strikes from other areas in the region and analysis of collecting intel and piloted aircraft.
What about Sunni tribes that I’ve heard there is supposed to be increased work with; and the Iranian threat across the river?
We keep a watchful eye on everyone operating in the region. The SDF composition has been mutli-ethnic and different religions and gender integration. And many of our on-the-ground partners and foot soldiers in Deir Ezzor, many of them are Arab. We have our Coalition partners working with meeting with local governance; we don’t do security as a standalone business, we recognize the population is a key part so that ISIS doesn’t have an effective insurgency.
Let’s move over and talk about Iraq, ISIS may see this whole area as all one area of operations, but what are the issues across the border in Iraq?
Here we are partnered with ISF and that has enduring military-military relationship, a bit different than Syria. We are seeing that there are ISIS pockets and bed-down locations along the mountains in Hamrin and Qarachough areas, and over into Nineveh plains and Anbar, a kind of arc running across the country. The Iraqis have conducted a series of operations called Will of Victory and there are more planned. These are multi-day operations doing ground clearance and as required we will do airstrikes if needed and share intel and on some occasions we have Coalition troops accompany on the ground. That doesn’t happen as much because they know the people and terrain and they will get after it.
So “by, with, and through” worked? Yes. And we are looking forward to increased Iraqi Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Peshmerga cooperation so that can close those gaps south of the mountain ranges with increased coordination and presence.
The way to do it is to keep continual pressure on ISIS.
What about the protests in Iraq since early October, does that affect operations or the Coalition? The security forces away from protests continue to focus on the ISIS threat and ISIS has not been in southern provinces. Each day the Ministry of Defense says it is rolling up ISIS sleeper cells, so those forces like the 14th division, the 6th division north of Baghdad, they are not being drawn into the protests.
ISIS hasn’t exploited it? We haven’t seen them exploit the protests in a visible way and part of that is because of their lack of organization.
Peshmerga reform? The Peshmerga have been saying they are reforming for years, what is happening now though? There are 38 reforms and the goal is an affordable, accountable, capable, sustainable and unified Peshmerga. These reforms began in 2017 and some things that happened is they have a reform directorate and they have solid leadership in the Ministry of Peshmerga. There is electronic payment of salaries and that builds trust and builds predictability and raises morale; if they know the paycheck comes on time that allows them to concentrate on the mission and training.
What about the weapons and gear they say they need?
We have more than 100 Humvees and several brigade sets of equipment and spare parts and artillery cannons, ammunition and digital mobile radios [on the way to them]; and more than just that we also prepare them in training and we invest in training in tactical training and logistics and maintenance. They need to manage the supply chain and get spare parts.
So it’s about the long-term?
We don’t just want Peshmerga to have a good Christmas and then do nothing to maintain the equipment, etc.
What else is important?
I would say another thing you will see soon is we will have the camp at Taji Build Partner Capability training that will go to FULL OPERATIONAL control of Iraqi government; so if you think about it, we controlled logistics ad stuff, now it will be their responsibility of the Government of Iraq and we will do a ceremony and this will be the first of these camp transfers and that will mean ultimately as they mature and develop, we will move from hands-on training to mentoring and advising role and they will have systems in place to maintain these facilities.
Which bases are those?
Besmiya, Al-Assad, Camp Taqaddum, there are like six…
What about these rocket attacks though? (In June mortars fell near Balad and Camp Taji, rockets fell near the US embassy in September, Q-West on November 8, and more hit near Al-Assad on December 3)
No one is blamed for the rocket attacks, the Iraqis will round up people, but we don’t finger ISIS or Hashd or anyone.