Foreign Policy

The warfare for the way forward for Syria and Iraq is being waged on smartphones

When Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was on his way to Washington in mid-August to discuss the US's continued role in Iraq, a package of smartphones made the opposite route to US soldiers in Iraq. They had been appointed by Col. Myles Caggins, then spokesman for the US-led anti-Islamic state coalition. "I'm pretty sure this is the first time the iPhone 11 Pro Max has been given out to soldiers for public affairs – quite a breakthrough," he told me. The phones symbolize a greater challenge for the international coalition, and especially for US soldiers, to fight the fake news spreading in Iraq and Syria and to explain the coalition's mission.

The United States is facing an elaborate information war between pro-Iranian groups, the Syrian regime, and Moscow designed to undermine trust in the anti-Islamic state mission in Iraq and Syria. Missile and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on US personnel in Iraq by groups that boast of having removed Americans have increased over the past six months. Videos of the attacks are posted online to send a message to Washington. Pro-Iranian groups such as Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba regularly released messages accusing the United States of running their embassy as a military base to justify further attacks. The Iranian media outlets claim daily that they have committed US misconduct, such as the looting of Syria's oil.

In Syria, Russian ground forces are harassing US patrols, and Russian officials and media are trying to portray the confrontations as America's fault. This combination of military confrontation in Iraq and Syria with local news intended for local consumption and regional leaders is intended to undermine the US presence. In an unprecedented move in late September, Washington informed Baghdad that the United States would withdraw from its massive embassy compound if attacks on the embassy and US personnel did not stop.

When Caggins arrived in Iraq in August 2019, the Baghdad Public Affairs Coalition officials had few connections with their counterparts in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Despite four years of collaboration, the coalition's Twitter account did not even follow the account of Mustafa Bali, spokesman for the SDF in northern Syria. Caggins was the first spokesperson to tweet in Kurdish and reached out to his colleagues in Syria to coordinate the messaging.

The coalition's use of tweets as a message to adversaries and partners in the field underscores the way wars are influenced by social media today. As a spokesman, Caggins described rumors of attacks on US convoys as "false" and showed solidarity with tribes in the Euphrates Valley who suffered from the massacres of Islamic states. The tribes are key to ensuring security for the coalition's role in protecting the oil fields today. Containing pro-Iranian fake news is also key to preventing escalation.

During his year as a speaker, he played a key role in developing new technology, tweeting in Kurdish, cultivating local relationships, and promoting more proactive use of social media. Caggins left the post last month, but his vision could transform the way the United States wages future wars and exemplify the struggle Washington was facing at this crucial moment in Baghdad.

US Army Colonel Myles Caggins, then the official military spokesman for international military interventions against the Islamic State, speaks on July 28 at a military base in Rumaylan in the northeastern Syrian province of Hasakeh. DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP via Getty Images

Caggins is a high-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 the color of his skin helped him make connections with locals in places like Iraq. "My father was a retired Colonel, and in 1964, after graduating from Tuskegee, white sergeants crossed the street at Fort Benning so they wouldn't have to greet him. And 50 years later, I represent all of these countries and live the dreams of my grandparents and great-grandparents off, ”he said.

When the George Floyd demonstrations began in the United States, he said many Kurds had sent him messages of solidarity because they were also subject to historical discrimination in Iraq and Syria. “This kinship that goes hand in hand with the color of my skin and understands those who have been left out and left behind and excluded and suppressed. … I spoke to Iraqi Prime Minister Mullah Talal and he said, "Hey, Col, you look like one of us." I can have these kinds of conversations and my predecessors cannot, "he said.

Caggins came to Iraq last year as the coalition's chief public affairs officer. A veteran of the early years of the US-Iraq War, who served in Diyala Province in 2003, he moved to the military's public affairs in 2006 and was the public affairs officer of the 1st Armored Division in southern Iraq from 2009-2010.

The twin crises of the Turkish invasion of Syria and the US-Iran tensions in Iraq make the continued role of the United States at the head of the international coalition against Islamic State 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 at the meeting that the US military in Iraq was due to "a very small number of soldiers".

These soldiers, who have been concentrated on a handful of bases after handing over six posts and bases to the Iraqi armed forces in 2020, are exposed to weekly rocket attacks by pro-Iranian militias. Trump also announced on August 20 that the United States had completed its withdrawal from the Syrian border areas and would decide "fairly soon" whether to stay in southeast Syria and continue to secure oil. U.S. Central Command recently returned armored vehicles from Bradley to Syria to bolster the U.S. presence there while the Trump administration ponders what to do next.

During this difficult and challenging time for the US armed forces, the role of public affairs officials has increased. With U.S. troops confined to their bases and often no longer on patrol with their colleagues, and the COVID-19 pandemic leading to even greater isolation from partner troops, much of the conflict is now centered on the front line of information war.

This aspect of US efforts in Iraq and Syria has often been overlooked or taken for granted. During the war against Islamic State, the need to extract information or respond to questions about civilian deaths, such as managing topics of conversation and providing answers on a battlefield. The increasing role of Russia and the Syrian regime in eastern Syria, where US patrols frequently encounter Russians, and the need to respond to propaganda videos by pro-Iranian groups in Iraq have added new dimensions to the conflict.

In February, a US patrol was driving through a village near Qamishli when they came across a group of armed men in plain clothes. After the shelling, the Americans returned fire and a Syrian was killed. The Syrian regime jumped on the incident to portray the Americans as occupiers who are shooting down civilians. The reality was likely that the Russians started this incident.

The problem for US troops is that they need advanced information about which villages support the Syrian regime and which villages 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 counter the Damascus and Moscow propaganda. For example, the Russians seem to be quick to get videos of incidents online; The US spokesman constantly has to refute stories circulating in Syria and Iraq about the US use of Patriot missiles or even the burning of crops.

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

When I called Caggins in Iraq in early August, I realized that Caggins had a different idea of ​​how to fight in the information space. First he wrote a less stilted and more personal message, in which he celebrated coalition successes, such as dropping bombs on hiding places of the Islamic state and humanizing the face of the coalition. On August 15, he introduced the deputy spokesman, Maj. Gabby Thompson, with a tweet in English, Arabic and Kurdish. He also made time for a variety of local news teams and spoke more directly to locals in their language than just responding to queries from Western media. Over the past year, he has improved the coalition's connections with locals and responded quickly and personally without the normal levels of bureaucracy and long waits that pester those trying to get a response from the Department of Defense.

The role of government and military spokesmen changes from responding to news to propelling narratives. This is an area where China and other countries like Iran have invested resources in making top diplomats key figures abroad and using social media and other media to send messages. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is an example of the rock star status a diplomat can achieve and he uses Twitter to effectively confront the US government.

Caggins' tweet introduces its deputy spokesman, Maj. Gabby Thompson, with a tweet in English, Arabic and Kurdish.

Likewise, Israel takes public affairs so seriously that it has created an entire Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy. Israel's Arabic-speaking military spokesman Avichay Adraee has 1.5 million followers on Facebook and 377,000 on Twitter. It is only part of the Israeli public affairs machine, which has learned from previous conflicts in Gaza that getting information out of it first and quickly is an essential part of conflict winning. Israel has learned from incidents such as the murder of Mohammed al-Dura in the Second Intifada when a Palestinian boy was killed in the crossfire between Israel and Palestinian militants that it must react quickly to such incidents even when Israel is wrong. to set the narrative.

In the past, the US military has recognized the importance of sending messages and responding to the public to its operations. The role of journalist access management has changed dramatically from the Vietnam War, when journalists rode in helicopters, to the Gulf War and the war against Islamic State, as the Pentagon changed its policy regarding embedded journalists and access. Scandals like Abu Ghraib and controversies like the one over the resignation of the Afghan commander, General Stanley McChrystal, had the potential to change the course of the wars. This seems to have made the US military more cautious over the years.

Caggins said a course at Harvard Kennedy School opened his eyes to the need to be personable, believable, and believable. What he found, however, was the tendency for statements to be "legal" and "in Queen's English or shaky jargon," and so people don't get messages in life. This means speaking more in simple terms – with more pictures and videos and an understanding of what social media platforms are popular today – and fewer tons of talking points. He believed it was important to show the coalition's human face. Given the coronavirus crisis which means most Iraqis and Syrians would never see coalition personnel, this has at least shown their faces on social media.

In a world of social media-driven narration, Caggins personally tweeted to around 100,000 followers on the coalition's Operation Inherent Resolve Twitter account. In early August, he posted a photo of Spanish soldiers playing football. “The sub-message is that the coalition is not just about US troops with machine guns. It has many nations and its message is that soldiers are not all body armored robots that ISIS terrorists bayonet – they relax, ”Caggins said. He chose a photo with Spanish soldiers, including a female member of the contingent, to demonstrate the coalition's diversity. "This is because the deployment isn't just about missile strikes and IEDs. There's a lot to live in the camp, although the number of armed forces has decreased over the past six months."

A local uses his phone to take pictures of a US military convoy traveling on the outskirts of the Kurdish-controlled city of Qamishli in northern Syria on February 12. DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP via Getty Images

Sitting in an office on the Union III base next to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad isn't the best way to get public affairs done. This was one of the reasons Caggins asked for phones for his soldiers. Almost everyone has a smartphone by 2020, and in Iraq and Syria, US opponents are increasingly using smartphones to record incidents. In order to respond to these incidents, information must first be published and your own side of the story recorded. It is extraordinary that this was not apparent in US efforts over the years in Iraq, but concerns about operational safety, budgets, or the wrong type of photos that were released appear to have prevented the Pentagon from approving smartphones among officials for issue public affairs.

An incident last year illustrates the challenge. The Iraqi armed forces under General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi of the elite counter-terrorism service (CTS) were sent to monitor an island in northern Iraq where Islamic state forces were believed to be hiding. The island of Qanus, located in the Tigris, was known as the hot spot of the Islamic State and the coalition decided to bomb it heavily with F-35 and F-15 in an extraordinary firepower.

It was September 2019, on the eve of September 11th. Caggins watched videos of the drone strike and wanted to tweet it, but drone footage is notoriously circulating and has been criticized for making war look like a video game. Instead, he had the video stitched together with phone recordings from the floor of the Iraqi CTS team. The result was a crescendo of explosions and a bit of the coalition's boast about its capabilities. Caggin's decision was questioned by a junior public affairs officer. "I want people to know what we're doing," he said. The resulting video went viral.

Caggins, who left Iraq in mid-September after completing his one-year post as coalition spokesman, is now in Texas, where he will take up a new position at Fort Hood. On September 19, he wrote that he was in quarantine on his return. "I get a lot of sleep, no missiles here." Back in Iraq, the United States considered closing its embassy in Baghdad as the crescendo of rocket and other attacks against the embassy, ​​the airport and the convoys supplying US and coalition facilities increased.

Caggins is expected to speak with the U.S. Army Association this year about the need to assess public information warfare. He argues that the US government should put more approved phones in the hands of soldiers. "When we trust them with guns, we trust them with cameras." He calls this fight "cheap word war in public space". This means having a sort of "squad-appointed speaker" like army squads have a machine gunner or rifleman. This would inevitably mean dealing with the fact that most soldiers in a place like Syria do not have the appropriate language training. But Caggins argues that one can move from an "I am not allowed to speak" mentality to a willingness to answer basic questions and give several simple messages.

Demanding more modern technologies like smartphones to respond to the information battlefield and trying to humanize the coalition were just the beginning. The third challenge was to reassure the US partners on the ground – and not just in Iraq. After the US withdrawal and the Turkish invasion in October 2019, confidence that the United States would remain in Syria had diminished.

The SDF considered cooperating with the Syrian regime if US forces were to leave completely. Caggins traveled to eastern Syria in November 2019 and made a personal connection with colleagues in the SDF who, according to a survey conducted by the coalition, have improved messaging and restored confidence. Despite Washington's ambiguity about the US's long-term goal in the country, the poll found that confidence in the coalition rose from 28 percent to 65 to 75 percent. "You see value in the coalition," said Caggins.

With the White House tending to change policy in Syria without notice, it is difficult to know if this renewed confidence will have long-term effects there. However, recent visits from U.S. envoys and the trips of Caggins and his team – along with the deployment of Bradley armored vehicles to Syria – sent the message that the U.S. is not yet closing the store.

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