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.
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.
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.
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.
The article also doesn’t seem to include any voices by women. It does interview “Muhammad Amar” who it claims is a fighter evacuated from Damascus and sent to Afrin by Turkey under a deal with the Assad regime. Like other military occupations that become permanent, the article notes that “The city has been connected to the Turkish electricity grid, ending years of blackouts; uses Turkish cell phones and currency; and has registered 500 Syrian companies for cross-border trade.” The article also notes there are no independent voices here to corroborate or monitor abuses. “Turkey has forced out many international aid groups to keep closer control itself.”
The article claims there are “terrorist” attacks in Afrin, without providing any evidence except Turkish officials. Usually when the Times writes about other conflicts it includes voices from both sides, but not here. It speaks to the “police chief in Afrin” who “said 99% of the attacks were the work of the PKK, the Kurdish separatist movement.” This is an inaccurate statement since the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is not separatist and there is no evidence Kurds in Afrin wanted to “separate” from Syria.
It the opposite; it is Turkey that has forced Afrin to separate through an occupation. Locals in Afrin say that there are often gun battles between Turkish-backed groups and kidnappings of locals who are held in secret illegal prisons.
The article goes on to claim that in “Afrin the Turks have handled security like any NATO force, surrounding their administration building with high concrete blast walls and sealing off a ‘green zone’ that encompasses the main shopping street in the center of the city.” It’s not clear what evidence the author had for regarding how “NATO” behaves.
UNDER TURKISH military occupation there is no free press, no freedom of assembly and minorities and women are persecuted. In most NATO countries the opposite is true.
Only one woman appears to be interviewed in the article, Rasmia Hunan al-Abdullah says that “everything is very hard.” She is carrying a toddler, the article says. In the time before Ankara’s invasion and the unleashing of far-right militias on Afrin the area had women in positions of leadership. Now it appears no women are allowed in any political office as leaders. A search of the article found the other interviewees were men, including Sulaiman, Amar, Muhammad, Orhan, Mouaz, Ibrahim, Jariri and Said. No dissenting or critical voices are interviewed or quoted.
Azad Nebi writes that “the untold story is the overwhelming majority of indigenous Kurdish people were uprooted from their home in Afrin.” He tweeted that the article was disgraceful. Alison Meuse accused the article of being a whitewash in line with articles by the Times praising Azerbaijan’s recent war. Ariz Kader slammed the article as well. “Because of the medium it has been published in, as well as the omission of key details of the situation on the ground (seemingly getting much of the content via the Turkish municipal representative), this does far more damage to Afrinis than any Turkish state propaganda piece can.” Meghan Bodette, who closely follows Afrin, asked whether NATO governments get a “free ethnic cleansing pass from The New York Times.”
Some of the critiques singled out Carlotta Gall, the Istanbul bureau chief for The New York Times. Turkey is the world’s largest jailer of journalists and critics are often imprisoned for tweets and any criticism of the ruling party. On February 16 the Missing Afrin Women documentation group said that a woman was kidnapped in Afrin. It provided her name. It was unclear whether the Times had or had not reached out to any women abused during Turkey’s three-year occupation.
There is no shortage of experts on the case of Afrin. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute has written about it, and experts like Amy Austin Holmes, a visiting scholar at Harvard, have spoken about Ankara’s backing for extremists. Alberto Fernandez, a former US ambassador, has also spoken about Afrin, and when he was president of Middle East Broadcasting he did an interview about the conflict there.
It is unclear if the Times has guidelines for reporting conflicts where both sides of the conflict are to be given a voice, especially in cases of controversy and ethnic cleansing. Usually, when reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the West Bank the newspaper does provide Palestinians a voice and not just Israeli officials. When it comes to Turkey and Afrin, it appears no Kurds were allowed to have a voice. They were only pejoratively referred to as “separatists,” which they are not. They are the local people of Afrin.