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The New York Times, Turkey, and the Missing Kurds of Afrin

The New York Times has much to answer for in its coverage of the Middle East. Its relentlessly anti-Israel coverage, from its reporters on the spot, from its columnists (with the exception of Bret Stephens), from the Op/Ed articles it chooses to publish, and from the editorials it publishes, have earned it pride of place with such media watchdogs as CAMERA. But it is not only Israel that has been on the receiving end of the Times’ failure to be fair. It has misinformed its readers about the reasons for the suffering endured by the Yazidis in the Islamic state; it has minimized the suffering of the Christian Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank; it has failed to explain how Hezbollah has taken over Lebanon and helped push its economy into free fall.

And now it has alarmed and angered many for its tendentious coverage, and cover-up, of the Turkish occupation of the Syrian — and once Kurdish — city of Afrin. The report on the NYT coverage of Afrin is here: “NYT accused of whitewashing Turkey’s Afrin occupation,” by Seth J. Frantzman, Jerusalem Post, February 17, 2021:

The New York Times has been accused of whitewashing Turkey’s military occupation of Afrin and the ethnic cleansing of Kurdish people. This surprised many, given that the newspaper has covered other conflicts by giving both sides a voice but when reporting in Afrin it appeared to only give Turkish military occupation officials and pro-Ankara voices a place.

An illegal military occupation. Stolen olives shipped to the occupying power for resale. Far-right settlers rampaging and attacking indigenous communities. Religious persecution. Locals kidnapped in extrajudicial raids, imprisoned in secret military detention centers. Ethnic-cleansing. All of this has happened in Afrin in northwest Syria, an area that was once Kurdish and was invaded and occupied by Turkey and Turkish-backed extremist militias in 2018. Since then, it has been ethnically-cleansed of Kurds, and minority graveyards and religious sites have been ransacked and destroyed. The New York Times is now accused of whitewashing Turkey’s occupation of Afrin in an article on Tuesday. [Feb. 16]

Erdogan sent his soldiers to Afrin in 2018. He claimed that the local Kurdish fighting force, the YPG, were “terrorists,” though no one else agrees with that characterization –the YPG forces were America’s most loyal and most effective allies against the real terrorists of ISIS. And Erdogan wanted to clear Afrin not just of the YPG, but also to expel the indigenous Kurdish civilians, to make room for Syrian Arabs who were living as refugees in Turkey, and whom the Turks were eager to move back to Syria.

Experts, activists, former residents and commentators expressed shock at the article online noting that it failed to mention human rights abuses and the displaced people forced out of Afrin. Some compared the article to state-run Turkish media propaganda. For a US press that prided itself on confronting the far-right in the US and critiquing an authoritarian leader, or “speaking truth to power,” the article was slammed for not including any critical or dissenting voices.

Titled “In Turkey’s Safe Zone in Syria security and misery go hand in hand,” the article claims that while Turkey’s invasion three years ago was widely criticized, “today, the Syrians they protect are glad the Turks are there.” The article hints at the fact that 160,000 Kurds were ethnically cleansed. “Thousands of Kurdish families fled the Turkish invasion, along with the Kurdish fighters. In their place came hundreds of thousands of Syrians from other areas, who have swollen the population, taking homes.” Usually, when the indigenous population is expelled and other populations are moved in, it is called ethnic cleansing. In this case, Kurds were removed by Turkey and far-right religious extremist militias it controls, and Sunni Arabs and Turkmen were moved into Afrin.

Of course the Turkish invasion three years ago was criticized at the time: the Turkish military was not invited into Afrin by any Syrian group, and certainly not by the indigenous Kurds who feared what was coming. It was an act of pure aggression by Erdogan, who as part of his neo-Ottoman dreams has also sent Turkish troops to, and set up bases in, Libya, northern Iraq, and even Somalia, to project Turkish power — throughout the region. .

The NYT writes that “the Syrians they protect are glad the Turks are there.” Those Syrians are Arabs, now living in the houses abandoned by the 160,000 Kurds who were attacked by, and fled from, the Turkish troops that seized Afrin in 2018. The Turkish troops protect those Syrians from any attempt by the Kurds to return to their homes in Afrin. None of this is made clear to readers; the NYT piece makes it sound as if Turkey is laudably protecting the local population (but we are not told from what), and there is no mention of the 160,000 Kurds who were chased out of their homes, to be replaced by those who are now being “protected.”

THE REMOVAL of Kurds was not by mistake. Turkey had ample place to house Syrian refugees in areas it occupies in Idlib and Tel Abyad. Turkey has sought to change the demographics of Afrin, removing Kurds and Yazidis and other minorities. It calls this a “safe zone,” similar to how the German Nazi regime referred to “living space” in areas it occupied in Eastern Europe where it sent Ethnic Germans and removed Jews and local Slavs.

There were other places in Syria under Turkish control where Syrian refugees could have been transferred from Turkey itself. But Turkey was not seeking just any place for repatriating those Syrians; at the same time as it was getting some of them out of Turkey, Ankara would be able to empty out a Syrian border region of its Kurds. Turkey was worried about the YPG, for those Syrian Kurdish fighters now had both arms, supplied by their former American allies, and military experience gained fighting the Islamic State. The Turks wanted to make sure the YPG would not be able to link up with the the PKK, which is both a Kurdish political and a military force inside Turkey.

According to the article the journalists were “escorted” by Turkey on a visit to Afrin. The newspaper called this a “de facto safe zone.” However human rights activists have described how for women the area is no longer safe. Women are often kidnapped and held in secret prisons, subjected to abuses and extrajudicial killings. The Times is accused of a whitewash. It claims Turkey has provided “infrastructure, education and health services.” It neglects to note, unlike as it usually does when covering the West Bank, that Turkey’s occupation of Afrin is illegal under international law. It neglected to interview any dissenting voices, people displaced from Afrin or any critics.

Not a single Kurd who fled from Afrin was interviewed by the NYT reporters. Why not? Surely their view of things, of how and why they were forced to flee, of what the Turks did to them (how many killed? How many wounded?), is important for NYT readers to find out about. Is Turkey providing “infrastructure, education, and health services” to any of those expelled Kurds, or only to those Arabs who have taken over their houses in Afrin?

The NYT reporters, who stayed in Afrin itself, and did not attempt to travel to areas where Afrin’s Kurds had fled (would the Turks have prevented them from leaving Afrin for other parts of Syria?), were always accompanied by local minders, trusted to keep those reporters from visiting sites of Turkish fighting with the Kurds, and prevent them from talking with anyone who might not parrot Erdogan’s party line. It’s no different from the way Western tourists in the Soviet Union used to be accompanied by Intourist guides who made sure that those tourists were never alone with Soviet citizens who might reveal that things were not quite as wonderful in the Soviet Union as depicted in the pages of Pravda and Izvestia.

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