Skip to main content

In Turkey, U.S. soldiers guard against Syrian missile threat

By Ivan Watson and Gul Tuysuz, CNN
updated 8:26 AM EDT, Fri September 13, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Close to 300 U.S. soldiers protect Gaziantep, an industrial city of 1.4 million people
  • They operate Patriot missile launchers and radar stations near the Syrian border
  • Commander: "We're protecting against" any Syrian "tactical ballistic missile or rocket attack"
  • Last year, at Turkey's request, U.S., Germany, Netherlands agreed to send missiles

Gaziantep, Turkey (CNN) -- For the past eight months, close to 300 U.S. soldiers have stood guard on a hillside overlooking one of Turkey's largest cities, scanning the skies for the threat of missiles fired from nearby Syria.

The American men and women, wearing full battle armor and helmets under the hot September sun, operate a series of Patriot missile launchers and radar stations, designed to hunt and shoot down incoming missiles.

Middle East reconfigured: Turkey vs. Iran vs. Saudi Arabia

It is a U.S. military "boots on the ground" deployment close to the Syrian border that has been largely overlooked during the furious debate in Washington over whether to attack the Syrian regime.

"We're protecting against any tactical ballistic missile or rocket attack that may come from the country of Syria," said Lt. Col. John Dawber, commander of the Patriot missile battalion originating from Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

A tumultuous week of Syria diplomacy
The role of military force in Syria talks
McCain: Would have attacked 2 years ago
Experts weigh in on Putin's op-ed

"Our presence here is to deter such an attack, and if that attack does come, to defeat any attack on our asset."

The "asset" is Gaziantep, a fast-growing industrial city of 1.4 million inhabitants. This sprawling metropolis is about 30 miles from the Syrian border and barely a two-hour drive from the northern Syrian battlefield city of Aleppo, which has been the target of months of Syrian government airstrikes and Scud surface-to-surface missile attacks.

Late last year, at the request of the Turkish government, the U.S., Germany and the Netherlands agreed to send three Patriot missile battalions to their NATO ally, to protect the Turkish cities of Gaziantep, Adana and Kahramanmaras.

The decision was reached after a series of deadly cross-border incidents, during which the Turkish government accused Syrian government forces of killing Turkish citizens with artillery and small arms fire.

The possibility that chemical weapons were used on a massive scale in neighborhoods around Damascus last week has only escalated the potential threat along the border, especially after the Syrian government threatened retaliation against U.S. allies Turkey, Jordan and Israel if it was targeted by an American attack.

The U.S. troops stationed in Gaziantep say surface-to-surface missiles equipped with chemical warheads are weapons the Patriot missile systems are designed to combat.

"The nature of our branch (of the military), air defense artillery, is that there is always a chemical threat," said Capt. Tarik Jones, a native of Woodbridge, Virginia.

Lt. Col. Dawber added that the Patriot missiles' ability to destroy missiles armed with chemical weapons depended on many factors, including the quantity of poison on the warhead, the type of chemical agent and weather conditions.

But, he added, "I'm pretty sure we can mitigate most of that, if not all of that, based on certain conditions."

For laymen, Jones summed up the complicated advanced technology and physics behind the Patriot system with a Nintendo video game analogy. He called the Patriots "Duck Hunt."

"We are able to engage missiles that are coming into the city, by shooting missiles out that are able to intercept it in the middle of the air," he said.

There are ample reasons why the Syrian government would want to attack Gaziantep. Tens -- if not hundreds -- of thousands of Syrian refugees and exiles are believed to have settled here over the past two years. It is a key operations hub for international aid efforts to northern Syria.

But Gaziantep is also an important rear base of operations for Syrian opposition groups, who are supported and, in some cases, armed by the Turkish government.

The mission of the U.S. troops deployed here is unusual because from their vantage point, they can see the city they have been assigned to protect.

"This is the first time in my 18-year career that we can see the asset that we're defending," said Dawber, who gazed past rows of Patriot missile launchers at the cityscape below.

"It's a special reward to also enjoy the view, while protecting the asset that we cover."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
A 15-year-old pregnant girl is rescued from slavery, only to be charged with having sex outside of marriage, shocked rights activists say -- a charge potentially punishable by death.
updated 12:07 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Airports judged on comfort, conveniences, cleanliness and customer service.
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
With so many new attractions on the way, the next few years are going to be a roller coaster ride.
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Thomas Malthus famously predicted that rising populations would create a food crunch: Could this be true?
updated 5:45 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
The lives of everyone close to Oscar Pistorius and the girl he killed are changed forever, his siblings say.
updated 6:33 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
From "Sick Man of Europe" to the world's fourth largest economy.
updated 9:31 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
updated 7:27 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Serbia and Albania try to play but the major game is called off after a drone flying a political flag enters the stadium.
updated 7:36 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
George Clooney's new wife, is now Amal Clooney, raising the issue of married names.
updated 1:57 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
The mysterious unmanned X-37B space plane returns to Earth after more than two years in space. But the U.S. Air force isn't saying much.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT