Foreign Policy

The Conflict for the Way forward for Syria and Iraq Will Be Fought on Smartphones

As Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was on his way to Washington in mid-August to discuss the continued U.S. role in Iraq, a package of smartphones was making the opposite journey to U.S. soldiers in Iraq. They had been ordered by Col. Myles Caggins, the then-spokesperson for the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition. “I’m fairly certain this will be the first time iPhone 11 Pro Max are issued to public affairs soldiers—quite a breakthrough,” he told me. The phones are symbolic of a larger challenge facing the international coalition and especially U.S. soldiers: to combat fake news that spreads in Iraq and Syria and also to explain the coalition’s mission.

The United States must confront sophisticated information warfare from pro-Iranian groups, the Syrian regime, and Moscow that is designed to erode trust in the anti-Islamic State mission in Iraq and Syria. For the last six months, there have been increasing rocket and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq by groups that boast of removing Americans from the country. Videos of the attacks are put online to send a message to Washington. Pro-Iranian groups such as Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba regularly put out messages accusing the United States of operating its embassy as a military base to justify further attacks. Iranian media prints claims daily alleging U.S. wrongdoing, such as looting Syria’s oil.

In Syria, Russian ground troops harass U.S. patrols, and Russian officials and media seek to portray the confrontations as America’s fault. This combination of military confrontation in Iraq and Syria with messaging on the ground that is put out for local consumption and regional leaders is designed to undermine the U.S. presence. In an unprecedented step in late September, Washington told Baghdad that if attacks on the embassy and U.S. personnel didn’t stop, then the United States would pull out of its massive embassy compound.

When Caggins arrived in Iraq in August 2019, the coalition’s public affairs officers in Baghdad had few connections with their counterparts in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Despite four years of working together, the coalition’s Twitter account didn’t even follow the account of Mustafa Bali, the SDF’s spokesperson in northern Syria. Caggins was the first spokesperson to tweet in Kurdish and reach out to his counterparts in Syria to coordinate messaging.

The coalition’s use of tweets to message to adversaries and partners on the ground emphasizes the way wars are being influenced by social media today. As spokesperson, Caggins called rumors of attacks on U.S. convoys “false” and showed solidarity with tribes in the Euphrates Valley that suffered from Islamic States massacres. The tribes are key to shoring up security for the coalition role protecting oil fields today. Tamping down pro-Iranian fake news is also key to discouraging escalation.

In his year as spokesperson, he played a key role in pioneering new technology, tweeting in Kurdish, cultivating local relationships, and pushing for more proactive social media use. Caggins left the post last month, but his vision could transform the way the United States fights future wars and illustrates the struggle Washington has faced at this pivotal moment in Baghdad.

U.S. Army Col. Myles Caggins, then official military spokesperson for international military intervention against the Islamic State, speaks at a military base in Rumaylan in Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province on July 28. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Caggins is a senior-ranking Black man who served in a unique public position at a time when the United States is going through a profound confrontation with racism at home. He told me that his skin color helped him form connections with locals in places like Iraq. “My dad was a retired colonel, and in 1964, after he graduated from Tuskegee, white sergeants would cross the street at Fort Benning so they didn’t have to salute him. And 50 years later, I represent all these countries and live out the dreams of my grandparents and great-grandparents,” he said.

When the George Floyd demonstrations began in the United States, he said many Kurds sent him messages expressing solidarity because they had also faced historic discrimination in Iraq and Syria. “This kinship that comes with the color of my skin and understanding those who were left out and left behind and marginalized and oppressed. … I was speaking to Iraqi PM Spokesman Mullah Talal, and he said, ‘Hey, Col, you look like one of us,’ and so these types of conversations I can have and my predecessors didn’t have,” he said.

Caggins arrived in Iraq last year as the top public affairs officer in the coalition. A veteran of the early years of the U.S. war in Iraq, having served in Diyala province in 2003, he transitioned into public affairs for the military in 2006 and was a public affairs officer for the 1st Armored Division in southern Iraq in 2009-2010.

The twin crises of the Turkish invasion in Syria and U.S.-Iran tensions in Iraq mean that the United States’ continued role at the head of the international coalition against the Islamic State is in doubt. Kadhimi’s trip to Washington in August was part of the developing strategic dialogue with the United States, and President Donald Trump said in the meeting that the U.S. military in Iraq was down to a “very small number of soldiers.”

Those soldiers, now concentrated on a handful of bases after the coalition handed over more than six posts and bases to Iraqi forces in 2020, face weekly rocket attacks by pro-Iranian militias. Trump also indicated on Aug. 20 that the United States had completed its withdrawal from Syria’s border areas and would make a decision on whether to remain and keep securing oil in southeastern Syria “fairly soon.” U.S. Central Command recently sent Bradley armored vehicles back to Syria to bolster the U.S. presence there as the Trump administration contemplates what to do next.

During this tenuous, challenging period for U.S. forces, the role of public affairs officers has grown. With U.S. troops confined to their bases, often no longer going outside the wire on patrols with their counterparts, and the COVID-19 pandemic raging, causing even more isolation from partner forces, much of the conflict now focuses on the front line of information warfare.

This aspect of the U.S. effort in Iraq and Syria has often been overlooked or taken for granted. During the war against the Islamic State, the need to get out information or respond to queries about civilian deaths, for instance, meant managing talking points and providing responses on one battlefield. However, the increased role of Russia and the Syrian regime in eastern Syria, where U.S. patrols often encounter Russians, and the need to respond to propaganda videos in Iraq by pro-Iranian groups, has added new dimensions to the conflict.

In February, a U.S. patrol was driving through a village near Qamishli when they came upon a group of armed men in civilian clothes. After being fired on, the Americans returned fire, and a Syrian was killed. The Syrian regime leapt on the incident to portray the Americans as occupiers gunning down civilians. The reality was likely that Russians helped instigate this incident.

The problem for U.S. troops is that they need advanced intelligence about which villages support the Syrian regime and which ones are more sympathetic to the United States. That means being in constant contact on the ground. It also means giving soldiers access to technology to be able to confront propaganda put out by Damascus and Moscow. For instance, the Russians appear to get video of incidents online quickly; the U.S. spokesperson has to constantly refute stories that are spread in Syria and Iraq about the United States deploying Patriot missiles or even burning people’s crops.

Boys look at smartphones as they sit outside a cafeteria tent at a camp for internally displaced persons in the Sharya area, in the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region, on Aug. 30, 2019.ZAID AL-OBEIDI/AFP via Getty Images

When I called Caggins in Iraq in early August, it was clear to me that Caggins brought a different conception of how to fight in the information space. First, he crafted a message that was less stilted and more personal, celebrating coalition successes, like dropping bombs on Islamic State hideouts, and humanizing the face of the coalition. On Aug. 15, he introduced the deputy spokesperson, Maj. Gabby Thompson, with a tweet in English, Arabic, and Kurdish. He also made time for a variety of local news teams, talking more directly to locals in their language than just responding to Western media inquiries. Throughout the last year, he improved the coalition’s connections to locals, responding quickly and personally without the normal layers of bureaucracy and long wait times that bedevil those trying to get an answer from the U.S. Defense Department.

The role of government and military spokespersons is changing from just reacting to news to driving narratives. This is an area where China and other countries, such as Iran, have invested resources in having top diplomats become key figures abroad, using social media and other mediums to send messages. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is an example of the kind of rock star status a diplomat can achieve, and he uses Twitter to effectively confront the U.S. government.

Caggins’s tweet introducing his deputy spokesperson, Maj. Gabby Thompson, with a tweet in English, Arabic, and Kurdish.

Similarly, Israel takes public affairs so seriously it created a whole ministry for strategic affairs and public diplomacy. Israel’s Arabic-language military spokesperson, Avichay Adraee, has 1.5 million followers on Facebook and 377,000 on Twitter. He is just one part of Israel’s public affairs machine, which has learned from past conflicts in Gaza that getting out information first and quickly is an essential part of winning conflicts. Israel learned from incidents such as the killing of Mohammed al-Dura in the Second Intifada, when a Palestinian boy was killed in crossfire between Israel and Palestinian militants, that it needs to react quickly to such incidents, even if Israel is in the wrong, to set the narrative.

Historically, the U.S. military has been aware of the importance that messaging and responding to the public have on its operations. The role of managing access for journalists has changed drastically from the Vietnam War, when journalists rode along on helicopters, to the Gulf War and war on the Islamic State, as the Pentagon has shifted its policies on embedded journalists and access. Scandals like Abu Ghraib and controversies such as that over the resignation of Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal have had the potential to change the course of wars. That appears to have made the U.S. military more cautious over the years.

Caggins said a course at the Harvard Kennedy School opened his eyes to the need to be likable, credible, and believable. But what he found was a tendency for statements being “lawyered up” and “in the Queen’s English or wonky jargon, and that’s not how people get messages in life.” This means talking more in plain terms—with more pictures and videos and an understanding of which social media platforms are popular today—and less reams of talking points. He believed that showing the human face of the coalition was important. With the coronavirus crisis meaning that most Iraqis and Syrians would never see coalition personnel, this at least put their faces on social media.

In a world of social media-driven narratives, Caggins tweeted personally to around 100,000 followers of the coalition’s Operation Inherent Resolve Twitter account. In early August, he posted a photo of Spanish soldiers playing soccer. “The sub-message is that the coalition is not just U.S. troops with machine guns. It has many nations, and its message is that soldiers are not all robots with body armor bayonetting ISIS terrorists—they unwind,” Caggins said. He chose a photo with Spanish soldiers, including a female member of the contingent, to showcase the diversity of the coalition. “This is because deployment isn’t all rocket attacks and IEDs. There is a lot to life on camp, even though the number of forces got smaller over last six months.”

A local uses his phone to capture images of a U.S. military convoy as it drives on the outskirts of the Kurdish-controlled northern Syrian city of Qamishli on Feb. 12. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Sitting in an office in the Union III base next to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is not the best way to do public affairs. This was one of the reasons Caggins asked for phones for his soldiers. In 2020, almost everyone has a smartphone, and increasingly in Iraq and Syria U.S. adversaries are using smartphones at all times to record incidents. Responding to those incidents requires getting information out first and being able to record one’s own side of the story. It’s extraordinary that in the U.S. effort in Iraq for years this wasn’t obvious, but concerns over operational security, budgets, or the wrong kinds of photos being published appear to have stopped the Pentagon issuing approved smartphones among public affairs officers.

An incident last year illustrates the challenge. Iraqi forces under Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi from the elite Counterterrorism Service (CTS) were sent to watch an island in northern Iraq where Islamic State forces were suspected to be hiding. Qanus Island, located in the Tigris River, was known as an Islamic State hot spot, and the coalition decided to heavily bomb it with F-35s and F-15s in an extraordinary display of firepower.

It was September 2019, on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary. Caggins watched videos of the strike from drones and wanted to tweet it out, but drone footage is notoriously common and has been criticized for making war look like a video game. Instead, he had the video spliced up with phone footage from the ground taken by the Iraqi CTS team. The result was a crescendo of explosions and a bit of braggadocio from the coalition about its capabilities. Caggins’s decision was questioned by a junior public affairs officer. “I want people to know what we are doing,” he said. The resulting video went viral.

Caggins, who left Iraq in mid-September after his one-year posting as coalition spokesperson was complete, is now in Texas, where he will transition to a new position at Fort Hood. On Sept. 19, he texted that he was in quarantine after having returned. “I get plenty of sleep, no rockets here.” Back in Iraq, the United States was considering closing its embassy in Baghdad as the crescendo of rocket and other attacks increased against the embassy, airport, and convoys that supply U.S. and coalition facilities.

Caggins is scheduled to speak to the Association of the U.S. Army this year about the need to value public information warfare. He argues that the U.S. government should put more approved phones in the hands of soldiers. “(If) we trust them with rifles, then trust them with cameras.” He calls this fighting “word war on the cheap in the public space.” This means having a kind of “squad-designated spokesperson” the way army squads have a machine gunner or marksman. Inevitably, this would mean dealing with the fact that most soldiers don’t have the language training for this in a place like Syria. But Caggins argues that one can shift from a mentality of “I’m not authorized to talk” to a willingness to answer basic questions and give several simple messages.

Pushing for more modern technology, such as smartphones, to help respond in the information battlefield and trying to humanize the coalition were only the start. The third challenge has been trying to reassure U.S. partners on the ground—and not just in Iraq. In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal and Turkish invasion in October 2019, confidence that the United States would stay in Syria had eroded.

The SDF was considering working with the Syrian regime if U.S. forces left entirely. Caggins went to eastern Syria in November 2019 and formed a personal connection with counterparts in the SDF that has improved messaging and restored confidence, according to a survey done by the coalition. Despite lack of clarity from Washington on the long-term U.S. goal in the country, the survey showed that trust increased in the coalition from a low of 28 percent to between 65 and 75 percent. “They see value in the coalition,” Caggins said.

Because the White House tends to change policies in Syria without notice, it’s difficult to know if this renewed confidence will result in long-term effects there. However, recent visits by U.S. envoys and the trips that Caggins and his team took—along with the deployment of Bradley armored vehicles to Syria—have sent the message that the United States isn’t closing up shop just yet.

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