The last mission: Anti-ISIS Coalition spokesperson Col.Myles B Caggins III says farewell to the region after exceptional success
By WLADIMIR VAN WILGENBURG
Coalition spokesperson Col. Myles B Caggins III on 9 September ended his one-year mission that he started since August 2019 as the official Coalition spokesperson and was succeeded by Colonel Wayne Marotto. Before he left, Col. Myles Caggins still managed to do two press conferences in Syria: one in northern Syria on Saturday, and one in the Kurdistan region on Sunday. This was a sign of appreciation for the Kurds for their contributions for the fight against ISIS by Col. Myles, since his predecessors mostly stayed in Baghdad and didn’t do press conferences in Erbil, Suleimani or in northern Syria. Moreover, he organized many trips for journalists embedding Western, Arab, and Kurdish journalists. For instance, he brought media to Kirkuk, Qayyara West, Besmaya and Taji base during base transfers. Also he brought over 27 journalists to the Ain al Asad base few days after the Iranian ballistic strike in January. He also brought journalists to Syria on several trips. However, the COVID-19 pandemic made it more difficult to bring journalists. “During the past year we started a media embed program. The program continues, but COVID-19 has changed things. Health and safety are paramount. And, of course, the airports were closed for a while,” Col. Caggins told MECRA. Col. Myles Caggins was also based in Baghdad and also did one long interview with the Iraqi channel Asia TV in Baghdad before he left, but took the effort to visit also local partners in the Kurdistan region and northern Syria. Col. Caggins also did many interviews on Arabic channels like al-Hadath, which is also popular in northern Syria. Moreover, he also did dozens of one-on-one interviews with Iraqi media, but it was more difficult to operate in Baghdad due to constant rocket attacks by Iranian-backed elements, leading Col. Caggins one time to abruptly leave an interview with an Iraqi channel in August due to incoming Katyusha rockets getting him the nickname ‘rocket interview guy’. The US killing of Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani near Baghdad airport in January 2020, after one US contractor was killed in December 2019, made it increasingly difficult for Col. Caggins to do work in Baghdad, due to increasing Iranian-US tensions in Iraq, while the Coalition was only focused on the fight against ISIS. Thus, although he didn’t like only the Kurds, they were they were the most receptive and accessible audience due to the US-Iran tensions in Iraq. For instance, he also met Iraqi Islamic State expert Hisham al-Hashimi in Baghdad who he paid tribute to during his last press conference in Erbil. Al-Hashimi was most likely killed by pro-Iranian elements (although they denied involvement) after the increased US-Iran tensions in Iraq. Iraqi officials rather had Col. Caggins to refrain to comment too much in the Iraqi media during this January 2020 crisis, fearing it could result in more local tensions. Hisham al-Hishami was not the only was killed; scores of Iraqi activists were also murdered following pro-reform and anti-corruption protests in Iraq. Turkish irritation Moreover, the fact that Col. Myles Caggins was eager to also highlight the SDF-Coalition partnership led to irritation among Turkish officials and ‘pro-Turkish’ US diplomats. They also saw his Kurdish tweets as a sign of him being too close to local Syrian Kurdish partner forces. Turkish officials even complained about one of his tweets in November 2019 that highlighted gender equality and showed a video of female SDF fighters that just graduated, including the words from a popular Kurdish proverb that promoted gender equality: “ Şêr şêr e; çi jin e, çi mêr e)” (A lion is a lion, whether it’s a man or a woman). The tweet was a sign how much Col. Caggins supported gender equality, with his deputy spokesperson also being a woman. Moreover, Turkish officials were angered due to the fact that one of the female fighters said that they were ready to defend themselves against any Turkish invasion (which is quite logical for a SDF fighter to say after what happened in Afrin, Serekaniye (Ras al-Ain) and Tal Abyad). Caggins, however, told me that he regrets tweeting the portion of the video that includes the female drill instructor discussing defending her village from cross-border attacks. Moreover, the pro-Turkish government state agency Anadolu Agency branded this popular proverb promoting gender equality a Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) slogan. This despite the fact, that the Turkish state channel in Kurdish TRT Kurdî also used proverb as a headline for one of their articles. But Caggins added that he stands-by tweeting the lion proverb and the anti-ISIS and women’s empowerment sections of the VOA video. He was cautious to watch all future videos three times before tweeting. As a result, the tweet praising Kurdish women was deleted due to Turkish pressure on the US government. This despite of Turkey’s anti-US policies, such as buying the Russian S-400 missile system, accusing the US of involvement in the military coup and support for groups such as Hamas and Turkey’s state-owned bank being involved in helping Iran evading sanctions. The annoyance of Turkey with the Coalition spokesperson was also off course related to the fact that Turkey wanted the US to completely end its relationship with the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) and the YPG (People’s Protection Units) that they claim to be proxies for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But despite of Turkish criticism, both the Obama and Trump administration on the highest level continued support to the SDF. Moreover, PKK officials recently heavily criticized the local administration in northern Syria on Geneva, Kurdish unity talks and the recent alleged oil deal between an US company and the local administration. Kurdish respect While Turkey was increasingly annoyed, the Kurds in the region developed a great respect for Col. Myles. Dilbixwin Dara, who hosts a Rudaw TV program on Rojava and interviewed Col. Caggins, said he wished Col. Caggins could stay longer, but that sadly his term was ending. Col. Caggins, smart use of Kurdish proverbs, saying he will always be ‘a mountain to the Kurds’ (a reference to the popular proverb among Kurds that they have ‘no friends but the mountains’ due to betrayal by foreign countries). The stateless Kurds have often felt betrayed by Western powers despite of their pro-Western orientation and wish to live among more peaceful neighbours in Europe, rather then the states of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Mullah Mustafa Barzani once said that he wished Kurdistan would become the 51st state in the US federation. Being a stateless nation, and the fact that Col. Myles not only did press conferences, but also tweeted in multiple languages including Kurdish was highly appreciated by both the Peshmerga forces and the SDF, despite of the policies of the Trump administration regarding the Kurdish independence referendum in 2017, and the Turkish invasions in Afrin in January 2018 and October 2019. The fact that the Colonel tweeted in Kurdish, a language that has been repressed and banned by several regimes in the region, was seen as another form of recognition. Furthermore, the fact Col. Caggins even tweeted even in the Syriac language, one of the languages of the bible, also earned him the close respect of the Syriac component within the SDF.
Col. Caggins also recently focused in tweets more on the situation in Deir ez Zor. Col. Caggins also underlined in recent tweets and quotes to journalists the need for unity between the SDF and tribes in Deir ez Zor, after tensions in the region due to the killing of Arab tribal leaders. He also paid respect to the innocent people of the al-Shaitat tribe who were massacred by ISIS in August 2014. He also build a good relationship with the website DeirezZor 24. More importantly, he also combatted fake news on Twitter, which was spread by the Syrian regime, such as an allegation crop fires were caused by US military. In one tweet, he mentioned how “Groups make these fake news stories to distract people from how they (Syrian regime) have harmed and killed 200,000+ innocent civilians. I won’t name any names.”
Embedded trip to Syria Last Saturday, I was given the opportunity with a few journalists to travel with Col. Myles by helicopter to see his last work in action. When he arrived in an undisclosed military base in the Hassakah province with his colleagues, he was received by several top media officials from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF): the head of SDF Press Centre Mustafa Bali, People’s Protection Units (YPG) spokesperson Nouri Mahmoud, SDF spokesperson Kino Gabriel (a top official within the Syriac Military Council), YPJ spokesperson Nesrin Abdullah, and given a farewell gift from the YPG. It was clear from the interactions that Col. Myles was well-liked, especially due to his Kurdish tweets and efforts to get closer to it’s local partners. Later he also met top SDF official Redur Xelil, who gave the outgoing Coalition spokesperson ISIS coins as a gift. However, during his press conference, not all local journalists were so appreciative of the Coalition’s role, due to the fact that the Trump administration allowed Turkey to attack in October 2019, (although the Trump administration denied giving a green light to Turkey). The Trump administration simply argued it could not fight a NATO-member, and could only use other measures such as diplomatic pressure or sanctions to stop Turkey. Although in the end, the US did not even sanction Turkish-backed groups despite of their various human rights violations and extrajudicial executions, such as the killing of female politician Hevrin Khalaf in October 2019. Currently, many local Kurds fear that Turkey could launch another attack on the SDF and rumours continue to persist that Turkey could attack again. One reporter during the joint Coalition-SDF press conference asked if there could be a second Turkish invasion in the northeast from Darbasiya until the Tigris river. This put Col. Caggins in a difficult position: US policies on a possible Turkish invasion are made by the White House and the US president Trump, not the Pentagon that has to follow orders. Although the Pentagon is more sympathetic to the SDF than the State Department, it cannot make decisions on its own to stop Turkey despite of its close relationship with the SDF. Col. Caggins could only underline that this is the job of diplomats, and not the Coalition. “These are high-level discussions, and those discussions are handled by diplomats,” he said. “The Coalition is not a part of that, but we always promote the principle of warfare do not do any harm to civilians.” He added that he doesn’t have any predictions what would happen. Furthermore, another journalist also asked Col. Caggins about the water that is constantly being cut off from the water station in Alouk by Turkey to over 400,000 civilians near Hasakah city. “Water should not be used as a weapon of war,” Col. Caggins said. But he added that there are diplomatic discussions on a solution. “We know that in the recent days water has been coming in.” Moreover, SDF media official Bali during the conference underlined that the SDF remained committed to the 17 Oct and 22 Oct ceasefire agreements that were sponsored by US Vice President Pence and Russian President Putin, and expected other parties to do so too. However, he also underlined the SDF would be ready to defend themselves if Turkey attacks. On 6 March, during a press conference in Syria Col. Caggins faced similar questions by journalists that underlined that people in border towns such as Amude, Darbasiya, and Tirbespi are afraid of another Turkish invasion. At that time, Col Caggins said he “refer you to the government of the neighboring country (Turkey) for their intentions. We’re going to stand side-by-side with the SDF and the people of this region in the fight against ISIS, and to protect critical (oil) infrastructure.” However, while he could say the Coalition would support the SDF and the locals against ISIS, he could not promise any support or commitment if Turkey would attack again. When in Oct. 2019 Turkey attacked, the US left several bases and later repositioned its forces to Deir ar Zour and Hasakah to protect oil infrastructure. As a result, Kurds fear that if Turkey would attack again with Russian support, the US could be pushed out, having the SDF facing the regime and Turkey on its own. Also because Russia is frustrated with the continued US presence and wants Assad to control all of Syria again, including it’s oil resources. Russia continues to complain about the ‘US occupation’, although the US is invited by local SDF forces and fights ISIS (which is legal). In the meanwhile, Russia stays silent over the Turkish occupation of Syrian territory (although they are also not invited by Damascus). Locals, therefore fear what earlier happened in Afrin, Tal Abyad, and Ras al-Ain could happen to them too. In these areas, there is daily infighting, demographic changes, kidnappings for ransom, sexual violations and kidnapping against women. Therefore, the future of northern Syria is unclear.
Balancing NATO ally versus SDF The fact that Col. Caggins was not really able to answer this question on possible Turkish attacks is also the result for the need for the US to keep good relations with NATO ally Turkey. But this clearly frustrated him. Towards the end of the press conference, he was not able to hold back tears during the joint press conference, which was immediately picked up by the Turkish-government media with joy. He said one of his press conferences in Syria on 11 Nov. 2019 was shortly after the Turkish Operation Peace Spring in October 2019. “I know how difficult that is for you guys. I know how your families were affected by it (the Turkish operation),” he said. But he added that behind these uniforms, US soldiers “are people too. We’re going to do the best we can do to help the people in this region to have the same type of peace and prosperity as coalition nations.” After the press conference ended, Col Caggins, also had the opportunity to meet SDF General Mazloum, which was not planned. However, it was made possible due to a delay in the return to Erbil due to an issue with one of the helicopters. General Mazloum also made time to say farewell despite of his busy schedule, and underlined that he hopes the Coalition would continue its fight against ISIS and appreciated the work of Col Caggins and his tweets in Kurdish. Concluding remarks But despite of the difficult challenges Col. Caggins was facing such as the Iran-US tensions in Iraq, the October 2019 Turkish invasion, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic, he has proven to be the best Coalition spokesperson since 2014. This due to his various media engagements with Syrian, Iraq, Western, Kurdish local media and his focus on a local audience. He made efforts not to only improve relations between the Coalition and the Iraqi security forces, but also with the SDF and the Peshmerga and local audiences in Iraq, Syria and also Kurds in the diaspora. Moreover, from his final message it was clear he was engaging with many Twitter users and people on WhatsApp from different backgrounds, and praised also OSINT gurus on Twitter, for their combat against disinformation, and informing people of key world events. As a result, many locals, journalists, analysts expressed their appreciation for Col. Caggins work, and his successor will have difficulties to fill his shoes. While Col. Caggins will be missed by many, the hope is that Colonel Wayne Marotto will continue his engagements in multiple languages, and continues to visit not only Baghdad but also Erbil, Suleimani and northern Syria.