BY JEREMY SALT
Clearly Colonel Myles B. Caggins III is both a patriot and a God-fearing man. As the communications director for task force Inherent Resolve in Iraq (stated mission the destruction of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), he is far from home in Columbus, Ohio. His home church, the Edgwood Church of Christ, stays in touch with a steady flow of greeting cards and once he’s back he intends to treat the veterans who have been following him with a meal at Ed’s Southern Cooking.
Colonel Caggins describes himself in interviews as a word warrior whose goal is to dominate the information environment with weaponized truth. His five As for success are aspire, acquire, achieve, acknowledge and assist. A prayerful man who knows the difference between good and evil, he has not hesitated to speak the truth as he sees it about the armed groups in Idlib province, about the ‘rebels’ and ‘opposition’ the media defends and the ‘terrorists’ the Syrian military is trying to destroy.
Colonel Caggins greatly annoyed the Turkish government late last year with a tweet praising female fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a largely Kurdish group established by the US to further its strategic interests in northeastern Syria. Turkey regards the SDF and the YPG (People’s Protection Units) as terrorists no different from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), operating just across the border for the past 30 years in southeastern Turkey. In his tweet, Colonel Caggins sent his congratulations to “the new class of female SDF fighters. A lion is a lion.” No doubt because of Turkey’s complaints, he later deleted the tweet.
Colonel Caggins’ truth is the truth of the home-loving patriot. In his eyes America is good. His mission in Iraq is good. Ed’s Southern Cooking is good. The Edgwood Church of Christ is good. Those Kurdish female fighters are good – but those people holding Idlib province are not good. Why, he told a Sky television interviewer, Idlib province seemed to be a magnet for “terrorist groups” who were all “a nuisance, a menace and a threat” to civilians just trying to make it through winter.
In fact, Idlib is not just a magnet for terrorist groups. Until the recent advances of the Syrian military, they controlled the entire province. They form a single force under the leadership of Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), designated by the US government as a terrorist organization even though its senior officials are obliged to call them ‘rebels’ who can be defended and not ‘terrorists’ who can’t.
In describing them as terrorists and a threat to civilian life Colonel Caggins, naively or inadvertently, put himself on the same page as Bashar al Assad and the opposite page to his own government. The response was immediate. The interview itself could not be removed but Reddit’s r/syriancivilwar ‘moderators’ removed all comments on what Colonel Caggins had said, in the interests, it falsely claimed, of keeping communities safe, civil and “true to their purpose.” One has to assume that Colonel Caggins was quickly reprimanded by his superiors.
On Twitter the defenders of the ‘opposition’ and the ‘rebels’ were furious. “You may as well be working for Putin,” wrote Robin Yassin-Kassab. You’re repeating Kremlin and Assad propaganda. Meanwhile, you have appeased the Assadist-Russia-Iranian mass extermination and mass expulsion of Syrians for nine years. Shut up.”
Mr. Yassin-Kassab, a novelist, is a propaganda pot calling the kettle black. He regarded the infiltration and takeover of east Aleppo by takfiris as “liberation” and their expulsion in 2016 as a “population transfer” comparable to the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948. In fact, the Aleppans were literally dancing in the streets after the ejection of their tormentors. The 300,000 people who had fled the city immediately returned once it was under full government control. These scenes have been repeated across Syria the moment the takfiris have been driven from the towns and villages they have infiltrated and occupied.
What the supporters of ‘regime change’ in Syria are actually upholding is the violation of international law at many levels and the attempt by outside governments and their regional partners to destroy an Arab government, not in the interests of the Syrian people but in their own strategic interests. They are supporting not ‘rebels’ or ‘the opposition’ but terrorists, in any reasonable definition of the word, and terrorists as officially designated by many of the governments that have staged this attack. They are not supporting ‘revolution’ because there never was one. Neither was there a ‘civil war.’ This was an orchestrated attack on Syria, launched behind the cover of a protest movement but armed and violent from day one in Dar’a.
For the past nine years, the Syrian government has done what it is constitutionally obliged to do, defend the country and its people against attack by terrorist groups financed and armed by outside governments and committing the most appalling atrocities. This is where the prime responsibility for the devastation that has overwhelmed Syria lies, not with the Syrian government.
In Idlib, the factions united under the banner of HTS include Ahrar al Sham, which over the years has been responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the past nine years, including the massacre and kidnapping of Alawis in Latakia. The head-severing Nur al Din Zinki is another member of this collective.
HTS, formerly Jabhat al Nusra and then Jabhat Fatah al Sham (Front for the Conquest of Syria), took root as Al Qaida in Syria until breaking with both the parent organization and the Islamic State in 2016. Fighting between the takfiris for control of Idlib lasted for years until HTS finally defeated its rivals in 2018. They were then incorporated into one fighting group under HTS’s leadership. The chaos which followed the takfiri takeover of the province included murder, kidnappings, extortion and the flight of virtually all the Christian population. Shia Muslims in Kafriya and Al Fua were murdered and the two villages besieged before HTS agreed to the transfer of the population into government-controlled districts. Just ahead of the evacuation in 2018, 126 people, including 68 children, were killed when their waiting buses were bombed.
The ‘Salvation Government’ established in Idlib rules according to HTS’s interpretation of Islamic law. The hisba religious police enforce ‘sharia compliance,’ which includes prayer attendance, the closure of shops on Fridays and modest behavior and appearance by shopkeepers. Men are forbidden to shave their beards off or to have their hair cut in ‘kaffir’ (unbeliever) style. The playing of (or listening to) any kind of music is banned. Sounds the kind of cosy place Robin Yassin-Kassab would really enjoy.
Males and female are segregated even at primary school and men and women are forbidden from mixing in all medical, educational and administrative institutions, with women forbidden from wearing makeup and required to wear the khimar, a veil that covers not just the head but the body down to the waist or the knee.
Women are forbidden to mix with men other than husbands or male relatives, even on public transport. Male shopkeepers are forbidden from selling women’s underwear with clothing restrictions applied even to advertisements and dummies in shop windows. In many cases, girls and women have responded to these restrictions by not going to school or university.
This is not a case of imposing ‘western’ standards on a Muslim society because all the evidence suggests that the people of Idlib are suffocating under this ‘Salvation Government.’ Activists have been arrested, shopkeepers have defied the hisba, there have been public demonstrations against price increases on food staples (such as bread and oil) and many judges or other senior figures in the government have been assassinated. The designation of HTS as a terrorist organization has cut off international support for educational and medical institutions, resulting in the loss of thousands of teaching jobs and the closure of at least two hospitals in Idlib city.
No doubt Colonel Caggins genuinely believes the US is doing good in Iraq. The folks back home clearly feel the same. The Iraqi people don’t agree. They want the Americans out of their country, and the sooner the better. The people of Idlib feel the same about the takfiris. They also will be celebrating in the streets when the last of them have gone. Wrong over Iraq, Colonel Caggins at least got it right over Idlib.