US Colonel, Myles B Caggins, was spokesperson for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria from 2019 to 2020. Here he speaks to Ronî Riha and Meltem Oktay about the current situation in North and East Syria. Caggins gives insights into US-Turkey relations, the impact on Rojava when Turkey begins a ground invasion into the region, and how the attacks will affect Coalition efforts against ISIS. Caggins describes Turkey’s desire to remove Kurdish people from the border of Syria and Turkey as ethnic cleansing, and discusses the future of the Kurdish- American relationship.
This interview was first published in Ozgur Politika.
Turkey is carrying out a massive attack on your coalition partner, which has lost thousands of people in the war against ISIS since 2014. As someone who knows the Kurds and the people living in North-East Syria closely, how do you feel?
The situation in Rojava, in North and East Syria, in Afrin, is a bad situation, it’s a terrible situation. Turkey has continued to assert its desire to remove Kurdish people from the border of Syria and Turkey; and Turkey is using – of course – airstrikes and artillery attacks, but also using water as a weapon, with the Eurphrates River. It’s conducting ethnic cleansing by removing a group of people from their lands, and replacing those people with other refugees, and also inserting terrorist groups into these places, like Afrin and Idlib and the land area between Ras al Ayn and Tel Abya – the so-called ‘safe zone’. How do I feel about this? I have served with the SDF, and I know many dozens of people who have served with the SDF – the Syrian Democratic Forces, YPG, YPJ – since the Battle of Kobanê, and they’re all disgusted at what is happening and the continued attacks on American coalition security partners by Turkey. So that’s how I feel. I wish these attacks would stop, because they’re harming the world’s partners who defeated ISIS. They’re also harming hundreds of thousands of civilians who’ve become refugees and displaced persons because of the damage and fear from Turkey’s attacks.
How do you think these attacks by the Turkish state will affect the joint operations of the SDF and the International Coalition against ISIS?
Well, the SDF and the coalition want to focus exclusively on ISIS, but some leaders in the Syrian Democratic Forces are also having the additional duty of preparing to defend their homeland from a potential ground invasion. So, at a minimum, these attacks by Turkey are a distraction from the fight against ISIS. But, even worse, these attacks can be harmful against the mission to defeat ISIS, especially when the attacks from Turkey kill the YPG/YPJ who are responsible for fighting ISIS.
Sixty thousand families of ISIS members were also targeted in al Hol Camp. It was announced that a group of ISIS members escaped during this attack. Do you think that the Turkish state is organising the escape and revival of ISIS members?
I don’t think Turkey is focussed on making ISIS members escape from al Hol. I believe if Turkey wanted to directly attack detention camps, camps like al Hol, they would directly attack. They have that ability. But I believe that Turkey in its attacks on the SDF enables and embolden ISIS because the SDF has to use its limited resources to be concerned about Turkey’s attacks instead of focussing exclusively on counter-ISIS operations, as well as holding the ISIS detainees.
Do you think there is a special reason for the Turkish state to target Kobanê, which led to the fall of ISIS?
Kobanê is a symbol, of course, for Kurdish unity, the success of Kurdish and Arab forces against ISIS. At the time when the battle of Kobane was successful, it appeared that ISIS could not be defeated on the battlefield. We also remember that Turkey watched this happen. So, Turkey watched ISIS attack Kobanê, take over Kobanê, and watched as the Kurdish forces fought to liberate Kobanê, and Turkey did not cross their border and help. So, these attacks by Turkey also have a psychological affect, and there would be a psychological affect if Turkey were to have a ground invasion and take over Kobanê. We will see what happens in the next few weeks or few months.
Kobanê has a special meaning or reason as a target for the Turks, you mean?
Yes. Kobanê certainly is a symbolic place. It is a place of a lot of symbolic meaning for Kurdish people, for the success against ISIS, and also the prominence of female fighters in the fight against ISIS.
The Pentagon and the White House have expressed their concern about these invasion attacks. Do you find these statements sufficient to stop the Turkish attacks?
The statements from Washington DC have very limited impact on influencing Turkey’s behaviour. It would have been better for Washington to make statements before Turkey started its most recent airstrike campaign in Syria. And if the Americans did not make statements prior to the attacks, to try to prevent this current operation from Turkey, then they should have made immediate statements condemning the attacks. But the statements came several days, or maybe a couple of weeks, later, and they have no influence over Turkey’s behaviour.
Why did the statement come late?
Washington values its relationship with Ankara more than its relationship with the Syrian Democratic Forces and Autonomous Administration. And the relationship between America and Turkey is between NATO allies, and, right now, America is most interested in defeating Russia in Ukraine, and Turkey is important for that mission. So, Turkey is able to make all of the decisions on what it wants to do, and America, mostly, has to just sit and watch what Turkey does.
In the latest attacks by the Turkish state, there were attacks against the civilian population and their vital infrastructure. These are war crimes under international law. Why is Turkey not facing any international sanctions?
It will be important for international organisations, including the United Nations and other independent bodies, to verify the atrocities committed by Turkey, including attacks on civilian targets. And it’s up to the international community to investigate and condemn these attacks. It’s not only the United States who is responsible for attempting to influence the behaviour of Turkey. And it’s important for the media to continue to cover stories – to report on what’s happening in northeast Syria, to let the rest of the world know the type of attacks that are happening, and that civilians are being harmed in these attacks. The international community always has to observe and speak about any atrocities that are happening on the battlefield anywhere – not just Syria, but also the Central African Republic, also Burma with the Rohingya people, also with central American migrants. So, there are a variety of places where there may be violations of international law and rights abuses, and the international community should put pressure on regimes that do not follow those rules.
How will the Kurdish-American relationship continue from now on?
The Kurdish-American relationship is not just one relationship, of course. We have all four parts of greater Kurdistan. And the relationship that the American government has with Kurds in northeast Syria through the Syrian Democratic Forces is one related to the fight against ISIS. That relationship will likely continue as long as ISIS remains a threat and as long as there are 10,000 detainees being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces. The United States continues to provide about 200 million dollars every year to help the Syrian Democratic Forces, and that will likely continue. But it is not a permanent relationship. In Iraqi Kurdistan, there is a more structured relationship with the United States, of course, and the nation of Iraq, and then also our consulate in Erbil. And that relationship is based on security, but also economics and trade and education as well. That relationship seems to be continuing to grow, with more investment from American businesses and the US government into the Iraqi Kurdistan region. And in Iran, of course, there is not a formal relationship, but inside the United States there has been support for the protest – for the men and women who are protesting the killing of Jina Amini and the other human rights violations of the Iranian regime. And with the Kurds in Bakur, the relationship with the United States is through Ankara.
Is there any crisis between the SDF and the United States? Sometimes we hear something about a crisis over the PKK between the SDF and the United States. Is there such a crisis?
Well, of course, the US relationship is with the SDF, and we know the history of the SDF, and some of the leaders were previously members of PKK. But the relationship with America is with the SDF, and with all of the groups who are underneath the SDF fighting against ISIS. The PKK has, as far as I have been told, representatives throughout Rojava, and has influence in the Autonomous Administration, but the United States Government does not directly coordinate with the PKK. I believe part of the reason why Turkey is attacking northeast Syria is because of the ideology, which includes the Democratic Confederalism government and jineology – women life freedom – and those things are concerning to the government in Ankara. And Turkey does not like to see Kurdish groups be successful at governance or in the economy, and so they attack. What we have not seen any evidence of, is PKK military attacks from Syria that go into Turkey. I have not heard or seen any evidence of this. And as far as I have seen or discussed with people, the SDF is orientated on protecting its people from ISIS or other threats and keeping order with the fighters and Asayish throughout North and East Syria.
In the 21st century, do you foresee a danger for the Kurds? If you foresee such a danger, what is it?
Well, I think the most important thing for Kurdish groups in all of greater Kurdistan is to have political unity and political cooperation that can lead to economic opportunities and shared security. The threats from outside groups, I think, will continue to persist. For instance, the threat of Iran against Kurdish groups, and the threat of Turkey against Kurdish groups, will continue as long as the Iranian regime is there and as long as the Turkish regime is there. Also, there is a threat from the Iranian-backed Hashd Al-Sha’abi [Popular Mobilisation Forces] inside of Iraq. So, the outlook for Kurdish groups is, unfortunately, I anticipate, more of the same: threats from all sides and not getting proper recognition from the governments of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.
The unity of the Kurds will bring more opportunity for Kurds of all parts of Kurdistan to be able to travel freely to see each other, to have economic opportunities with each other, education opportunities, combined efforts. You know, there are so many different types of media in Rojava, Bakur, and Bashur. There could be opportunities for people to consolidate information and to present the region to the rest of the world in a favourable way, where Kurds can gain more friends and allies across the world because they’re speaking with one voice.
Why is a “No-Fly Zone”, which was previously implemented by the USA in the Kurdish region of Iraq and approved by the United Nations, not applied to Rojava?
There’s not the political will or interest to have a no-fly zone over Syria. And you will also not have a no-fly zone of two NATO allies. No-fly zones are very expensive. They require a lot of resources. And, also, a no-fly zone would not stop Turkey from committing atrocities against the Kurds. They would just use artillery, they would use water, they would use ground forces, they would use Turkish-backed terrorist groups, to achieve the same things that they are doing now. So, I understand why people want to have a no-fly zone for Rojava, but I do not anticipate it would happen, because it would be a NATO versus NATO no-fly zone – and Turkey is threatening Greece and you see there is no no-fly zone there either. So, it’s just not something that is likely to happen. It was different in Iraq a few years ago during Saddam’s regime. Saddam was our enemy. Saddam was the enemy of the United States. Turkey is a NATO ally of the United States, and we would not want to get into confrontation with an ally – a military confrontation.