NYT accused of whitewashing Turkey’s Afrin occupation

Written by on February 16, 2021

The New York Times has been accused of whitewashing Turkey’s military occupation of Afrin and their ethnic cleansing of the residing Kurdish people. This surprised many, given that the newspaper has consistently given both sides of a conflict a voice in their paper. However, when reporting in Afrin, the paper 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 graveyards and religious sites have been ransacked and destroyed. The New York Times has now being accused of whitewashing Turkey’s occupation of Afrin in an article published on Tuesday.

Experts, activists, former residents and commentators all expressed shock at the article, noting that it failed to mention human rights abuses and the displacement of 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 —  “speaking truth to power — the article has been 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 merely 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,” the article reads.

Usually, when an indigenous population is expelled and other population is moved in, that is referred to as ethnic-cleansing. In this case, the Kurds were forcibly removed from Afrin by Turkey and far-right religious extremist militias, and Sunni Arabs and Turkmen settled in.

The removal of Kurds was not a mistake, it was done intentionally. 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. They accomplished that by removing Kurds and Yazidis, as well as other minorities.

Turkey 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 emphasized how the area is no longer safe for women.

Women are often kidnapped and held in secret prisons, subjected to different 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, 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 does not include seem to include any female accounts. It does interview  one Muhammad Amar who the article claims is a fighter who was evacuated from Damascus and sent to Afrin by Turkey as part of 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 cellphones and currency; and has registered 500 Syrian companies for cross-border trade.” The article also notes there are no independent voices available to corroborate or monitor abuses. “Turkey has forced out many international aid groups to keep closer control itself.”

Additionally, the article claims there are “terrorist” attacks in Afrin, without providing any evidence except from Turkish officials. Usually when the Times writes about other conflicts it includes voices from both sides, but not in this story. Reporters spoke to the “police chief in Afrin” who “said that 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 at all that Kurds in Afrin ever wanted to “separate” from Syria. The opposite, in fact, is true. It is Turkey that has forced Afrin to separate through an occupation. Locals in Afrin say that there are often shoot-offs between Turkish-backed groups and kidnappers of locals who are held in secret illegal prisons.  

The piece 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.” The author did not present a precedent or any evidence for this supposed “behavior” of NATO.

Under Turkish military occupation there is no free press, there is no freedom of assembly, and minorities and women are persecuted. That is not the case for most NATO countries.

Only one woman who was interviewed in the article, Rasmia Hunan al-Abdullah, said 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 were interviewed or quoted.  

Azad Nebi wrote 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 critics singled out Carlotta Gall, the Istanbul bureau chief for the New York Times. Turkey is the world’s largest jailor 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 if the Times had not reached out to any women abused during Turkey’s three-year occupation.  

There are 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, has 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.  

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