When is the Syrian 'opposition' Syrian?

A novelist, filmmaker and journalist makes his way to the Turkish-Syria border with the help of his Turkish left friends and contacts, to investigate the refugee camps and military camps where he says Syrian and non-Syrian fighters are undergoing training. The locals he meets seem to confirm their suspicions.

At the outskirts of the city of Adana in southern Turkey is located an enormous US Air force base called Incirlik. It is actually only nicknamed ‘the US base’, in reality it is being utilized by the United States Air Force, the Turkish Air Force and by the British RAF. Of course for the United States it may be one of the key overseas military facilities; Incirlik is a home to about five thousand US airmen, ‘complimented’ by several hundred airmen from the British Royal Air Force. But the primary unit stationed at Incirlik is the 39th Air Base Wing (39 ABW) of the US Air Force.  One look at the map and the significance becomes obvious: several ‘important’, ‘strategic’ countries appear to be in a relatively short flying distance from here: Syria, Iran, Lebanon and Iraq to name just a few. But recently the base is gaining new infamy: “There is plenty of evidence that they are now training so called Syrian ‘opposition’ on the premises of Incirlik”, I was told by renowned Turkish investigative journalist Huseyin Guler in the city of Hatay, near the Syrian border.

The base propels the economy of the entire area, both formal and informal. We park at the entrance of “Mujda’s Café & Restaurant”, near the main gate leading to the base. At Mujda’s, all prices are exhibited in US dollars, not in Turkish liras. Photographs depicting US military hardware, airplanes and the officers with all their decorations and medals on display are covering the walls. The exhibits are out of place alongside the kebabs, beer and yoghurt drinks. “Do people around here talk about the Syrian crises?” I ask. “They do, of course”, answers the waiter. “Do they talk about the training of the so called ‘Syrian opposition’”? I press further. “Some do”, he smiles evasively. There is a girl working nearby. We ask her about surveillance. “Of course my phone is tapped, “ she replies. “But that is nothing unusual. They are tapping everyone’s phones around here. Other things happen as well, but I can’t talk about them.”  My colleague and friend Levent (he has to be identified only by his first name, for safety reasons) joins the discussion: “Wiretapping is just one of the most innocent things this government does. It is not only used for collecting intelligence, but also for character assassination of those who dare to stand in its way. For instance, the phones of the generals who declared their outrage and opposition over western involvement in Turkish affairs had been tapped, their conversation flow recorded and broken up to be fabricated into ludicrous but extremely damaging sentences, electronically.”

Incirlik however – is just the beginning of our journey.  We drive 200 kilometers to the city of Hatay – a culturally and religiously diverse southernmost Turkish metropolis near the several border crossings to Syria. Most of the way the highway is suspiciously smooth and fast, perfect for the deployment of troops.  It is clear that in Hatay almost everyone is afraid to talk, from the local barbers to shop owners, hotel receptionists or even the majority of common passers by.  Suleyman, an owner of a huge coffee shop with several impressive water pipes is one exception, but even he prefers to keep his full name and the name of his business anonymous:

“People that the west describes as ‘Syrian opposition’ are considered here, in Hatay, as just a bunch of renegades and bandits. It is hard to believe they actually call them refugees! Refugees with guns, roaming our streets; get real! They are not good people. Almost all of them wear beards, carry guns and make our citizens frightened.”

Tunis The Apaydin Camp

A uniformed police officer appears at the door as we speak. He gives us an inquisitive look and disappears as suddenly as he entered. “90% of Syrian people are in favor of Assad’s government and only countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are supportive of the ‘opposition’, and of course the West,” continues Suleyman. Soon a small circle of people is formed around our table. Once they hear that I am not ‘one of those official media people’, they begin gesturing and talking over each other, explaining that Hatay – the city they love and feel proud of – is renowned for the peaceful coexistence of various ethnic and religious groups. “There are Syrians living here for ages, as well as Armenians, Jews and other diverse ethnic groups. There are Sunni, Shia and several Muslim sects. We used to all live in peace!” “Hatay is very close to Syria”, explains an old man, sipping his strong tea. “90% of the people here are somehow linked to the major city of Aleppo just across the border. And this place – Hatay – even used to be an independent republic; it only joined Turkey in 1939.”

Then Suleyman who obviously has more on his mind, speaks:

“People here believe that the US and the west in general are heavily involved in the conflict in Syria, and that they are grooming the opposition which is both very religious and very intolerant. Hillary Clinton was here in Turkey, and she openly declared that her country would be supporting the ‘refugees’. Now, to make it clear, these people that are being called ‘refugees’ come to our city, and they rent houses here and then many of them are walking around fully armed, waving their machine guns. What is on everyone’s mind here is that they did not come here just to fight the war at the other side of the border – they appear to be quite ready and capable of igniting the violence in Hatay itself.”

But the right wing, pro-government media in the country is using a rather different, and more complicated language to justify the support Turkey is giving to the ‘refugees’. Today’s Zaman newspaper on August 29, 2012 noted:

“ Exploiting the issue of Syrian refugees in domestic politics in order to criticize the government is a cause for concern, according to many analysts in Turkey, who believe that the tensions that have occasionally broken out in recent weeks between local Turkish people and Syrians who have taken refuge in Turkey should not be exploited by the opposition; nor should the issue be treated as one of internal politics.” 

*

We drive to the border. It is almost a full moon when we arrive at the Cilvegozu crossing, barbed wiring and watchtowers on both sides of the access road. There are a few cars with Syrian license plates in front of an enormous metal gate, and there are several Turkish taxis waiting seemingly idly by the side of the road. But periodically the gate opens and the cars come in and out. My Turkish colleague inquires if we can pass to the other side and talk to the Syrian border guard. The answer is a resolute “No!” – no Turks and no foreigners are allowed to cross here. The border is open – 24 hours a day – but only for Syrian citizens and the ‘refugees’.  Mehmet is a local taxi driver who is shuttling Syrian citizens between two sides of the border. He is at first reluctant and suspicious, but eventually he agrees to talk: “Hundreds of people pass through this gate every day”, he explains. “And this is not the only one - there are of course other crossings in the area. Some people who come here are injured. Syrian border guards are very lenient: if they see that civilians have been caught in the crossfire, they let them pass without any hindrance. And once in Turkey, they get registered, processed, housed.”  He confirms that the border is only for Syrians and the ‘others’ (he does not elaborate, as we are supposed to know): “We can only take the people to the other side, to the Syrian post, and then return having picked up others from there. Everything is organized; it is not like some spontaneous border traffic like in the old days.”

Tunis A 'normal' camp in Turkey

*

Apaydin village is just a few minutes drive from the road connecting Hatay and the border at Cilvegozu. There are refugee camps; at least two of them. Officially all these camps are supposed to be for the immigrants escaping violence in Syria, but we are told that one camp is strictly for ‘fighters’ and the other one for civilians.  “The nearest camp is for those who have been fighting against Assad”, explains a fruit seller at the side of the road. “There is a constant military presence around that camp. We are so unhappy about the Syrians coming back and forth! We are afraid, but nobody would pay any attention to us.”

As we make our way towards Apaydin camp, we are in constant telephone contact with the investigative journalist, Huseyin Guler. He keeps sending warnings: “I went 3 times near those camps. Yesterday we tried to enter the Apaydin camp but the guards became aggressive and tried to grab my equipment and to delete the photos. We resisted! They tried to take my cameras by force, but we said: ‘you’d have to fight us! We will defend our equipment. At the end they backed up, but only after some physical brawling. And this time we just tried to photograph the camp from a distance. Before disappearing, I found one sympathetic soldier. I asked him: ‘There must be some serious reason why we are not allowed to take photos.’ ‘Yes’, he replied: ‘There are commandos and soldiers from the Syrian opposition inside this camp’”.

Now we are here. I have plenty of experience with photographing army camps. Just in the last two months I managed to sneak into those near the warzones in Africa: on the Ugandan and DR Congo border, as well as to the one near Gisenyi in Rwanda.  But Apaydin Camp is different. To be precise, this is no Red Cross or UNHCR facility; there are no signs of usual refugees, like baby clothes drying, families sitting idly near the fence, cooking fires sending smoke towards the sky. From the first glimpse, this is one heavy combat camp, surrounded by layers of barbed wire, with watchtowers, soldiers pacing back and forth along the perimeter. Tents are minimalistic and the entrance is like that to some military base.

We drive at regular speed surveying all the possible angles for photographing. Then one sharp 180-degree turn and we begin working: in a slow movement across the front of the gate. I use a very fast professional Nikon. All goes well, but the guard is also fast, and he begins to signal at us, trying to make us stop. We ignore him, making another fast 180-degree turn and hitting the dirt road along the perimeter, although at some distance from the soldiers. It is not much but it is something. I let the motor of the camera run and take a sequence of shots, from several angles. My Turkish colleague is at the wheel and he is as good and steady as one gets.

Tunis The entrance to Incirlik Base near Adana

In several minutes it is over and I have some 100 images of Apaydin Camp. But what I have are just external photographs of the site. I want more, I want to know what is hiding behind the fence.

*

“I was inside Apaydin Camp only once”, explains Huseyin Guler, when we finally manage to meet in a safe place in Hatay. “I actually did not enter; I was dragged inside – I was detained! Others are luckier, but not many. For instance yesterday, a Russian journalist – Fatma – was for some reason allowed to go in. Later she said that those so called refugees are directly ‘fed’ with US intelligence.”

“You see,  I have been working here now as an investigative journalist for one year and eight months. I shuttle between the border and the camps. Fighters leave Apaydin Camp in the middle of the night. And they return before dawn. We did our surveillance. Local villagers are confirming that the armed groups are regularly crossing the border at Kizilcat, which is actually a Turkmen village in origin. They march with the weapons on their backs. Across the border from Kizilcat, there used to be a Syrian control post, but now there is none. So the fighters crossing to Syria are managing to train the locals and to return before dawn. Turkish border guards just let them pass. Four months ago a Syrian MP came to Hatay. He protested at the murder of 120 Syrian officials in his country. CIA, Mossad and MIT (Turkish intelligence) immediately began pointing the finger at Assad and the government, but in this part of the world almost everyone knows who is really responsible.”

Huseyin Guler than recalls how he went, six months ago, to the meeting of the ‘refugees’ where he was told that they were invited there by the PM of Turkey himself – Mr Erdogan – and that if they were given money, weapons and training, they would be willing and happy to fight Assad’s government. Mr. Guler filed the story for Aydenlik. And the Turkish government never disputed it. He added, “In another border village – Asagi Pullu Yazi – I once met people who were coming directly from the fighting. One of the fighters said his cousin had been injured and was in the hospital. He even insisted that I know and use his name – Ahmed Mullah Hassan.”

*

For months I have been meeting Mr Serkan Koc, leading Turkish documentary filmmaker and the chairman of National TV (Ulusal TV) at a discreet café of Pera Museum in Istanbul. We have been exchanging our documentary films and at one point Mr Koc interviewed me for his television station. But mainly we discussed Syria. He offered great insight into the occurrences at the border; he even supplied me with his own photos taken in Syria, permitting me to use them in my reports.  This time, when I went to the border, he was helping to coordinate my steps remotely, over the phone, and supplying me with the details of his investigation:

“Of course you do realize that those people are not really ‘Syrian opposition’. They are modern-day legionnaires collected from various Arab countries, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, paid by western imperialist powers. Some are members of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Most are militant Sunni Muslims. One could describe them as rogue elements hired to fight the Assad government. It is important to point out that some 90% of Syrian people are still supporting Assad and I think he is now actually winning the war, although reading the western media you would never think so. Assad is enjoying the support of China, Russia, Latin America, Iran, Hezbollah, and many other countries and movements world-wide. The Turkish government is clearly in decline, supporting those terrorist elements the west calls the ‘Syrian opposition’.

*

We drive once again to the camps. A few kilometers from Apaydin, there is a large camp hosting Syrian civilians. In this one there are women and children in open view; elderly people are chatting in front of the tents.

According to the official media communiqué of the Governor of Hatay – Celalettin Lekesiz – 17 months has passed since the refugees began entering Turkish territory. 44,000 were accepted. Syrians with valid passport can enter Turkey for three months without a visa and extend their stay for 5 months. Syrians without valid passport or those who overstay are taken to the refugee camps. No refugees are allowed to wear military uniforms… 1980 refugees have been treated for gun-related injuries. 157 criminal cases accusing Syrian citizens have been field in the last 17 months.

The plush pastoral landscape around Hatay is charged with fear and uncertainty.

*

We are driving at an illegal 160km/h on the highway so that I can catch my evening flight to Istanbul. Levent is my friend of many years and this report was supposed to be signed by both of us, but at the last moment he decides that it would not be safe for him: over one thousand people in Turkey are already in prison, some tortured. The victims are nationalist (anti-western) military officers and generals, journalists and intellectuals. Levent is a young Turkish intellectual. After some hesitation he offers his theory:

“I don’t see all this as a regional problem. Syria is just one pawn in a tremendous game that is destroying the nation-states worldwide. The US and the west are intervening in Iraq, Libya and now in Syria with absolute impunity. Syria and Iran are two obstacles to absolute control over the Middle East by predominantly western business interests. It is all about control of the natural resources, of the people, the armies… World government project, with the west giving orders exclusively.”

Levent sees the Turkish government as a major and negative regional player: “The present Turkish leadership is clearly under the influence of western imperialist powers. But the way it behaves - is all very blurry and designed to confuse people. On the world stage, the Turkish government tries to portray itself as decisively anti-Israeli, but just look at the military arrangements between the two countries, including the air force base in Konya which is still helping to train Israeli military pilots!”

*

Returning from what could be described as the relatively new front of a global western neo-colonial war, it would be easy to feel disheartened. Just a few weeks before Hatay I was filming at the border regions of East Kivu, DR Congo, a country which has already lost near ten million people. The screws of global control appear to be tightening. Human life seems to be becoming worthless, and the propaganda of the western mass media almost absolute.

But as I drove, I thought about Turkey, and the more I thought about it, the more iI felt convinced that Turkey is not just some depressing place between the west and the Middle East - another staunch ally of the forces ruling the planet. Its population is well educated, well informed and fiull of life. To me, many Turks have been a great source of inspiration.

Many Turkish people are resisting and by doing so they are willingly risking their lives. They are fighting, with pride and determination, and lots of them are ending up in prisons for their beliefs; for speaking and writing the truth about the forces that have been destroying the region and the world. I find it natural to lean on many of them, as they were leaning on me, translating my books, constantly inviting me to speak, asking me to join the struggle. As we approached the airport of Adana, I suddenly felt more hope and more strength to continue my work than before this short but revealing journey.

About the author

Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He has covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on western imperialism in the South Pacific is called Oceania. You can find his blog here

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