Securing Turkey's borders

TRT World gains exclusive access to Turkish military bases along the Syrian border

Photo by: AA
Photo by: AA

A Turkish soldier looks at Atma tent camp through binoculars in the Reyhanli District of Hatay, Turkey on February 23, 2016. Yesilce and Bukulmez border posts and the security systems on the border line have been introduced to the press members.

"The division is based in Antakya," said Brigadier Hasan Polat as he scanned the early morning sky close to the Syrian border.

Polat was in a jovial mood as he told us about the structure of the second armed division of the Turkish military, based in Hatay Province.

It’d been four months since Polat’s men had spotted a Russian SU-24 fighter jet as it violated Turkish airspace. The military said it had warned the Russian pilots many times, but the plane did not respond, with Turkish F16s finally shooting down the aircraft near the border at Yayladag.

"We still see Russian jets over Syrian skies, but they dare not cross into Turkey again," said Polat. 

"Our team was given access to three military facilities along the Syrian border. We had applied for an embed with the Turkish military in December and two months later we were given the go-ahead."

Brigadier Polat talking to his men.

The Turkish army is the second largest fighting force in NATO, after the US. It’s soldiers are among the best trained according to the Janes information group and with six hundred and forty thousand personnel, it’s the eighth largest military in the world.

"I’m the guard in charge of watching and protecting the honour and pride of the noble Turkish nation, and the indivisible unity of my country. I am willingly ready to give my life for my country and nation," shouted Infantry Sergent Selman Yilmaz.

He faced the Syrian border, as he made his ritual war cry, at the Guvecci army base, one of three bases our team was taken to as part of our military embed.

The Guvecci base has been a vital station for the Turkish military since it first started surveillance of Syrian airspace in September, on the lookout for Russian fighter jets. The watch-tower at Guvecci offers amazing views of the Yaglidag mountains as they run into Syria. On the Syrian side one can clearly see check posts, vacated by the regime, now in control of opposition groups.

Russia has intensified its offensive just south of this area, in Idlib province, one of the last remaining strongholds of the Syrian opposition. Russian fighter jets have targeted these strongholds, killing both armed fighters and civilians, according to the UN.

From Guvecci, we were taken to the Yesilca and Bukulmez army base where we were introduced to Colonel Mehmet Ali Tuna.  

"Colonel Tuna is in charge of the regiment stationed at these bases," Brigadier Polat told us.

Tuna, looks much larger than his medium built. A man of few words, he commands a force of several hundred men spread across a dozen army camps along Turkey’s Syria border.

"Approximately one third of nine-hundred and 11 kilometre Turkish-Syrian border is under the responsibility of our regiment," said Tuna as he gave us a tour of the Bukulmez facility and its surrounding areas.

"The camp behind us is Atmeh," said Colonel Tuna.

The Atmeh camp for internally displaced people was set up with a few tents in 2012 on the Syrian side of the border.

"Now it hosts approximately 100,000 people," said Colonel Tuna.

Atmeh had been under the control of competing armed opposition groups since 2012, and over time had gained notoriety for its links to smuggling rings. It had also gained a reputation for the kidnapping of aid workers including for the abduction of David Haines in March 2013.

The British aid worker is said to have been sold to various groups before ending up in the custody of DAESH. He was beheaded by the terrorist group in 2014.

Tuna has been tasked with the construction of a three metre high barrier separating the camp in Syria with his base in Turkey. 

"The biggest problem we faced has been from Syrians trying to illegally cross in to Turkey, as well as the smuggling of livestock and goods," Tuna told us.

But now another threat was emerging near the Bukulmez army post.

"That area on the far right of the camp is now controlled by PYD-YPG," said Brigadier Polat.

Turkey considers the YPG – the Syrian off-shoot of the PKK – a terrorist group, but the US has been supporting the YPG as an anti-DAESH fighting force in Syria. It’s a relationship, Ankara is deeply concerned with.

"We are facing a very fluid, rapidly changing situation across the border," Brigadier Polat told us.

"Construction on seventy-two kilometres of the wall, which constitutes approximately a quarter of our area of responsibility, will be completed before the end of April," said Colonel Tuna.

The seventy-two kilometres of the wall is being constructed in five pockets along the Turkey Syria-border. Turkey has plans of extending the barrier to up to two hundred kilometres, up to Sanliurfa and Gaziantep.

Colonel Tuna has been overseeing the project for more than a year now and was happy to see it progress.

"I’ve been stationed in Hatay for four years and every day has come with new challenges," said the colonel as we walked along the wall – on the other side of which was Syria.

"We are prepared to deal with new emerging challenges," he said.

Authors: Ali Mustafa, Cagri Gunal, Ilker Tas