On the Turkish border with Syria, an international Nato force sits quietly awaiting a conflict that may never come. But the heavy-duty weaponry on show says half the battle is about coming prepared.
In a dimly lit nuclear-proof van on a piece of scrubland in southern Turkey, three young Dutch officers sit with their eyes glued to the monitors of the Patriot missile engagement control station. They’re searching for tactical ballistic missiles – or Scuds – coming their way. Outside, five vast truck-mounted launch systems are pointed at the sky on high alert. “We are here to protect the city of Adana from a possible ballistic missile threat from Syria,” says the battalion commander Lieutenant-Colonel Marcel Buis, as his men tuck into a US Air Force-supplied lunch box in the dappled shade of their camp in the corner of a Turkish base. “We know that Scuds are being used in Syria. The threat might not be acute [here] but there is a threat.” They’ve also been busy making wooden pallets into chairs.
Buis and his Patriots set the scene for a geopolitical standoff. The Dutch are part of a Nato-coordinated line of defence sent to bolster Turkey’s 885km border with Syria after a mortar hit a Turkish village last autumn. At the Turks’ request, Germany, the US and the Netherlands have assembled six Patriot batteries across the region at four bases in Adana, Gaziantep and Kahramanmaras. “We’re a niche within Nato,” says Captain André Bongers, the Dutch public-affairs officer who explains Patriot missiles’ historic role in staking out Cold War frontiers from northern Norway to southern Turkey. “We bought this system in the 1980s. It may look old but behind these screens is the latest technology. Scuds fly at supersonic speeds. This system has the power to intercept them. It’s like a bullet taking out a bullet.”
The city of Adana is known for its fertile soil and thriving citrus farms – the area supplies 70 per cent of Japan’s grapefruits. Today, the hotels that once hosted meetings about the price of oranges and lemons have become gathering points for government officials, aid agencies, intelligence officers and foreign fighters. All are en route to crossing points or refugee camps on the Syrian border, some 125km away. The city is protected by two sets of Patriots – one at the US Air Force installation at the Incirlik Air Base, 8km east of Adana, the other next to the city’s main airport.
Not that many residents of Adana appear to be too happy about the presence of Patriots in their town. “These are making us into a target,” says Mustafa, who owns a copper workshop in Adana’s old souk. “We see Syrians here and of course we help them. We give money. Our government helps them. We don’t need this type of protection in Adana.” The sunny Dutch camp in Adana’s balmy climate is a stark contrast to the US installation two-and-a-half hours’ drive southeast. Here, perched on a freezing muddy hill over the city of Gaziantep, is the US troop camp. They’re waiting for the Turkish military to renovate their new barracks to “western standards”. Lieutenant Colonel Charles E Branson shows monocle a video of the Patriots in action to the accompaniment of a Turkic-inspired operatic score. The sci-fi graphics show a Scud launching and a Patriot swooping in to explode it in mid-air. Branson delivered the equipment on C-5 Galaxy carriers from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, earlier this year and has had experience using the system in Iraq. “I’ve seen them in action,” he says. “We were defending Baghdad and the manoeuvre unit from the third infantry division of the US army. It’s good to have it on our side.”
Nato’s mandate in the region means sides matter. Its integrated Link 16 data and communication network has eyes on the entire area. Alongside the sensors on land, at sea a warship equipped with an Aegis Combat System also contributes to surveying the area. Both units tell monocle they can see Scuds in Syria. But these are an irrelevance to their mandate. The Patriots are here to defend the Turkish population against the improbable: an offensive from Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Any talk of a no-fly zone is quickly dismissed. Besides, explains Colonel John Wanat, as things stand any such action is unfeasible. “A no-fly zone is specifically for aircraft – we’re not here to do anything with aircraft beyond the border,” he says. “Nato has no desire to do that right now and neither do we.” Nevertheless, unlike in Adana, many in Gaziantep feel reassured by Nato’s presence.
The country’s pistachio capital, which was once a province of nearby Aleppo, is now home to 34,000 Syrian refugees and there are a further 34,000 in Turkish camps at Islahiye, Karkamis and Nizip. (afad, the Turkish government’s disaster and emergency wing, says that another 40,000 Syrians are currently waiting in informal camps on the border as the government builds more settlements.) There is a palpable sense that Gaziantep is at the heart of a gathering crisis. What’s more, the dealings this industrial centre once enjoyed with Syrian traders have fizzled out and its factory owners supply aid instead of trade. “We used to go to Syria weekly, sometimes daily. Now this has stopped,” says Hasan Kozlu, CEO of tomato paste factory Oncu, as he sits at his desk in the hq of his family-run business. “[The Patriots] here are necessary,” he adds. “If Assad sees he is losing he could do anything.
We know he also has chemical weapons.” As monocle drives towards the final German installation the sense of Syria’s conflict is more apparent. Stop for directions in the town of Kahramanmaras and every passerby is Syrian – one even wears a hand-knitted Free Syrian Army flag which he opens and draws attention to as he passes. On the Gazi base at the top of Kahramanmaras the Turkish defence minister Ismet Yilmaz and his Dutch and German counterparts assemble in the driving rain to announce a “clear warning” to Syria. “This is a symbol of Nato solidarity,” says Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the Dutch defence minister who made the decision to send her country’s Patriots after only two days in office. “I think it’s important to know where the costs fall. For the Netherlands we calculate €40m for one year.”
It’s a robust stand against a Syrian offensive reaching Turkey. Providing similar protection to Syrian civilians is less of a priority. monocle asks whether the defences should be used to enforce a no-fly zone at Aleppo. “We are watching [Syria] carefully,” says Hennis-Plasschaert. “However, the current mandate for Germany, the US and the Netherlands is to be in a defensive role – to protect territory, the Turkish people and to downsize the risk of escalation. It’s not relevant to discuss another mandate.”
In this sense the Patriots are a clear statement of Nato’s strength but also a testament to its hesitant, havering resolve – its inability to protect those civilians unfortunate enough to live on the wrong side of the border. The Nato mission appears to perfectly sum up the international community’s confused response to the Syrian crisis. The words are loud but the guns are silent.
Turkey’s foreign ministry has won rave reviews for its handling of the Arab uprisings with foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu becoming a pivotal global diplomatic figure. But the crisis in Syria has been far tougher for Davutoglu and his team to deal with. By aligning themselves so closely with the West and its calls for Bashar al-Assad to step down, Turkey is no longer seen as a neutral negotiator.
Relations with neighbour Iran and former ally Russia have also suffered, while the Shia-dominated government of Iraq is unhappy with Ankara and even Israel is no longer a friend. Davutoglu used to talk of having “zero problems with neighbours”. Ankara seems a far lonelier place these days.
The Patriot air defence missile system was developed in the late 1960s by the American defence giant Raytheon – the world’s largest producer of guided missiles – as an anti-aircraft device. Consisting of a radar system, communications towers and a control centre as well as the all-important missile launchers, in the 1980s it was upgraded to intercept Scuds (tactical ballistic missiles). Patriots have been used in the 1991 Gulf War and again in Iraq in 2003. South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Greece and several other nations also own batteries. It’s a highly mobile system designed to move with manoeuvre units and can be on the road within an hour’s notice – usually to the site of geopolitical strife.