Transcript: Col. Myles Caggins, CJTF-OIR Spokesperson, holds a press conference with Syrian Democratic Forces

| July 30, 2020

SOUTHWEST ASIA —

Editor's Note: This transcript is provided by the Rojava Information Center

Myles Caggins: It’s good to see everybody. My colleagues and my partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have just described the important operations against ISIS in Heseke and Deir-ez-Zor. And I’m here to remind everyone that the Coalition remains a strong partner with the SDF to defeat Daesh. Together we have accomplished tremendous work, we have been successful against Daesh, but the threat of ISIS remains. And I want to describe how we are partnering with the SDF, the current threat from ISIS, and let you know of some other areas, some other topics, where we are collaborating to help the people of this region. 

As you are aware, because you take so many pictures and so many videos, the Coalition has moved from the western parts of Syria and the northern parts into the eastern parts, Heseke and Deir-ez-Zor. And from our bases in this part of the region, we are partnering with SDF to share high-level advice and planning, exchange intelligence, and coordinate air support for operations against ISIS. If you think this sounds like the same thing the Coalition has been doing for six years, you’re right. We continue to have the same strong support for the SDF to defeat Daesh, and that commitment remains. 

The SDF, the men and women, fighters against ISIS, are already stronger and better, more capable, than Daesh. The Coalition, with our advisors, our advanced technical military equipment, our drones, and our ability to collect intelligence, gives the SDF operational overmatch, makes the SDF more capable against ISIS. 

And you’ve already heard the details about the recent ‘Deterrence of Terrorism’, the successful operations along the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) and in the desert. What we did not mention is that we anticipate that there will be more coordination to keep the border between Iraq and Syria secure from ISIS going back and forth. And the Coalition works with the Iraqi security forces and SDF to bring capability together to ensure that everybody is coordinated in defeating Daesh. 

Before I move on to other areas, I want to take a moment to honor the martyrs. Thank you, God bless the martyrs and god bless their families, and the wounded warriors and their families. We can never forget their sacrifices against evil ISIS terrorism.

Moving on to a couple of other topics, and then we’ll get to your questions… when I was here in March, we had local businesses, vendors, going through an application process to compete for contracts on Coalition bases. I’m here to report that the Coalition has hired several businesses to provide services on the bases that we share with SDF. This has resulted in millions of dollars in purchases from businesses inside north-east Syria, to help grow the economy and grow things locally. 

One of the businesses I’ll highlight is a business called Horizons, and this business is providing things like gravel, concrete and food services. And they’ve hired 28 people since my last visit here in March. And there’s additional support to bases in Heseke and Deir-ez-Zor. The Coalition supports equal opportunities, fairness with businesses, fairness with our staff, our military, our personnel. And I’m thankful to our women colleagues for the gifts you’ve given to my colleagues, because we see everyone as equal. So gelek spas, shukran, jin jiyan azadi, and we’ll deal with your questions now.

Q: What is the Coalition doing to mitigate the situation at Hol Camp?*

OK, thankyou for your question. I’ll first explain our approach, our view toward the detainees, and second I will explain some of the activity that we’re doing to help the SDF keep the world safe from ISIS detainees. First, the Coalition recognizes that the 10,000 detainees in the foreign families Annex in al-Hol is an international problem. There are ISIS members and family members from more than 50 nations, so this is something that must be addressed by the global community.

Now, each nation, each individual country, has its own policy, its own practices, about returning their members back to those countries. So they have to speak for themselves. But the Coalition together is helping the SDF manage this very difficult problem. And we thank the SDF for the investment of time, money, and mostly, people to detain 10,000 terrorist fighters and also work in al-Hol. 

Here are some things that we have done recently: we are supporting the SDF with money and funding, facility improvement processes. For example, we’ve talked about Covid already: we know that in small areas people can get Covid, so we’ve helped the SDF by funding barracks for the Asayish and the guards to stay in so there’s more space between them and the detainees, and between the detainees, so if anyone gets sick they can stay away from each other.

Security is important: the Coalition has helped provide security at these facilities, we’ve helped with funding for cameras, better construction, better doors, razor wire, and we’re also helping with intelligence by the registration process for detainees, that happened during the first phase of ‘Deterrence of Terrorism’. Now, let me be very clear on one thing: the Coalition is not in nay of these camps. we do not have military forces in these camps at all. But there are nations, some of the 77 member nations of the Coalition, that have provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to run these camps, not just for ISIS but all of the people who have been harmed by this terrible civil war in Syria since 2011.

Q (RIC): There are reports of a potential Turkish operation east of Qamishlo, possibly around Tirbe Spi (al-Qattaniyah). This would have a negative effect on the Coalition’s anti-ISIS operations. Do you think these reports are credible, and what steps are you taking to ensure that a further Turkish operation doesn’t interrupt your operations?

The Coalition’s partnership is south of the border, but we of course are aware of different challenges in the region, tensions in the region, and operations particularly by our NATO ally [Turkey]. I’m not familiar with this potential operation that you mentioned. During the previous period, in October and November, with Peace Spring and the agreements that were made, things were looking bleak. Particularly if you were someone living in Ras-al-Ayn or Tel Abyad. But thank goodness, fortunately, the SDF were able to make the decisions to move detainees out of the space.

And since that time, we’ve been able to continue our operations against Daesh like the ones my colleagues mentioned earlier. And we do not see any impact to our operations related to ISIS, related to any of the other regional military forces.

Q: Won’t Coalition condemn its NATO partner Turkey’s attacks on civilians?

Look, the Coalition came together in 2014 because of what was happening with ISIS. And the Coalition has continued to grow every day since 2014, and we now stand at 77 nations and 5 international organizations. One of those international organizations is NATO. And NATO countries sometimes have different perspectives, and also we have countries that are members of both NATO and the Coalition. As a representative of the Coalition, my responses today and our greatest interest with the Coalition is defeating ISIS. But certainly, any activity that harms civilians is against the principles of international warfare, and Coalition nations believe that, and stand firmly by that.

Q: Will Coalition do anything to relieve impact of Caesar sanctions, which are causing suffering for civilians? And will this economic crisis impact Coalition operations?

The US Caesar act, the Caesar sanctions, are sanctions that came about after there were photos smuggled out of the torture done by the Assad regime against innocent civilians for many years. Terrible, vile, evil, wicked, torture. The USA and the international community have UN resolution 2254, that’s calling for a political settlement for the Syrian civil war. Sanctions from the USA, as a principle, not just the Caesar act, are not directed at harming civilians. These are directed towards harming businesses or nation-states that are helping Bashar al-Assad get rich. As he gets rich from these groups who are willing to fund him, the people in this nation suffer. Everybody knows that. 

I’ve mentioned to you earlier how the Coalition is working on more local businesses. That’s the military side. More broadly, the US alone has contributed $10.6 billion to people all across Syria, from Homs to Heseke, and that aid continues. Some examples of that aid: we’ve had agriculture projects in southern Heseke, to help farmers have better feed and water for their sheep. We’ve been able to have electricity projects from Raqqa all the way across to the eastern portion of the nation, and those projects, and the international commitment, and the funding from the US continues. And we have even purchased medical equipment and PPE to keep people safe from COVID-19.

Q: What steps are the Coalition taking to prevent threats against minorities, particularly the Christian minorities, in North and East Syria?

Our presence is a sign of our commitment. When you see Coalition forces on the M4 highway, you know we are there. And where we appear physically is a signal to the local population that the partnership continues against ISIS. We clearly recognize that there are regional competitors. Regional military forces who sometimes share the same agenda as the US and Coalition, and sometimes they don’t. But those nations will have to answer for their own operations.

I’m here to tell you that the broader Coalition is committed to Heseke and Deir-ez-Zor, plus a security presence at the at-Tanf garrison. The stability provided by the SDF, with the Coalition’s support, helps the humanitarian organisations, the NGOs, have access into communities. And that access is possible because of this security. There was a time when you had groups like the Free Burma Rangers who were so helpful across this region, who were driving straight into combat to deliver aid. There is not combat of that high intensity anymore, because of the Coalition’s success with [SDF] against Daesh. 

Q: What is the Coalition’s position on Turkey recently ‘rescuing’ an ISIS-linked woman from SDF detention in Hol Camp?

Some of the families inside Hol, and some of the other camps, it’s not just al-Hol, still have connections to ISIS. And those family members have identified themselves. They’re not hiding. And the fact that they’re trying to sneak out of the camps, inside these trucks and tanks, is a message to the world that it’s still a problem. Our focus is on the Asayish catching them. That is a success. And some of the Asayish have been trained by the Coalition, and given equipment to search by the Coalition, and they’re doing the very best they can to keep evil people from escaping the detention camps or the displaced person civilian camps.

Q: Aren’t Caesar sanctions harming local people and preventing delivery of humanitarian assistance without serving to change the Assad regime?

This is the way people and geography and political boundaries work. Of course the US has a principle where sanctions on the Assad regime, or sanctions anywhere internationally, are not intended to target or harm civilians. We want civilians to have peace, prosperity and good health. But surely there may be a business somewhere that is impacted because they had a vendor coming from outside Syria. Where we can, we try to provide humanitarian assistance as much as we can, and the one thing I can assure you is that nobody is trying to harm anybody in the region with these sanctions, and we want the regime to come to the table as part of UN resolution 2254, and that all this war ends and we can move on. This will take some time. 

In the meantime, I want you to know that the Coalition – although in the military we live in Haseka and Deir-ez-Zor and at-Tanf garrison, we’re still supporting SDF operations in Raqqa and Tabqa with intelligence, with training for commandos, anti-terrorism forces, and we’re still able to provide, through local NGOs, humanitarian assistance and limited job opportunities.

The people of this region are quite impressive, quite resilient, quite strong. Look at the city of Kobane. Kobane was khallas. Destroyed. Today, Kobane is much better, because of the efforts of Kurdish and Arab people who lived in the neighborhoods and invested their own money and time, and sweat, to rebuilding a city that was destroyed by Daesh. And is an example to people across the world.

Q: Though this is a political rather than a military issue, what reassurances can the Coalition offer the people of this region that they won’t pull out once again?

Again, this is a difficult issue. I understand that, I empathise with this issue. I’ve explained before, every time I’ve come here, November, March, now, and of course you all follow what the Coalition says on social media and other interviews. But the Coalition remains committed to this region, and those decisions, as you appropriately point out, are political decisions. The military members here in this region are giving it their all. They are young men and women, some of them who you saw today, some who are around, who come very far from their homes to NES. They get up in the morning, they go on patrols, to ensure that there’s no ISIS. They protect critical infrastructure, to ensure ISIS cannot have a source of revenue. And, today, we honored one of our soldiers who died last week. Sgt. Mounts. Sgt. Mounts was from the 82nd Airborne division, and arrived in this region about a month ago, and he perished. He perished in a very tragic accident.

But the soldiers of the Coalition, the soldiers of the USA, feel proud about working with the SDF. They do the best that they can do within the rules and resources that they’re given, to fight ISIS and help our partners. And that’s all I can give you today. And for as long as we’re here, we’re going to give you the best, strongest commitment that we can.

Q: What are you doing about radicalization of children in Hol Camp? And what is your position on Turkey recruiting fighters in Syria and sending them to Libya to fight there? 

I’ll take your second question first, if you don’t mind. The Russians and regime are recruiting young men from Deir-ez-Zor, they’re giving them money, and they’re sending them off to Libya, to fight and die for a land that they have no business being in, in a war that they don’t believe in. This is terrible. The Coalition looks askance… we thinks it is not appropriate to come to this region, pay people money as mercenaries, to fly to other locations, in Libya, and fight.

The Coalition supports the SDF with equipment, with some stipends for inside the detention camps, and we try to do the best we can to help this great military, the SDF, to have the resources to keep the region secure. Instead of your young men going off somewhere else to fight and die in someone else’s war.

Back to al-Hol camp, defeating ISIS military is one step, and that has been accomplished. The physical defeat of ISIS. But then there’s the ideology. And you know, it’s unpredictable how long people will have this mindset, for terror, and the belief and the value system that ISIS has. There’s no quick solution, there’s no magic wand to solve this problem, but the first step is providing security. The second step will be rehabilitation for some people. And here’s another area where the Coalition is helping. There’s a youth camp [Houri Center], and we are helping the SDF expand the youth camp to have double the population of young people who are removed from older, negative influences who could incite them to terror. So, these young people will have a chance to reset their mind, and grow up and live in the way that you and I live, freely, where we’re not thinking of terror and causing harm to another.

*All answers are verbatim but questions as transcribed here are summaries only.