by Hugh Fitzgerald
The New York Times recently published an article on Turkish-ruled Afrin, a formerly Kurdish area of Syria that the Kurds have fled, and now is populated by Syrian Arabs who had been living as refugees in Turkey, and then were moved into Afrin by the Turkish military. That article has been widely criticized, mainly because it fails to report the views of any of the indigenous Kurds, and relies on what Turkish officials and their Arab collaborators wanted the Times reporters to hear.
The article also failed in other ways. “NYT accused of whitewashing Turkey’s Afrin occupation,” by Seth J. Frantzman, Jerusalem Post, February 17, 2021:
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.”
Turkey has transformed Afrin from a Kurdish city into an Arab-inhabited Turkish outpost. The former city of Syrian Kurds has been repopulated with Syrian Arabs who had been living in Turkey, and now have ties to that country. The Turks have connected Afrin to the Turkish electricity grid; Turkish currency has replaced that of Syria; Turkish – not Syrian – cell phones now work in Afrin. Afrin’s trade has been directed away from Syria and toward Turkey, with 500 companies newly registered for cross-border trade with Turkey. These are all signs of Turkey tightening its grip on the region and its people; the Turks no longer talk of leaving. It looks like they are in Afrin to stay. The weakened government in Damascus is in no position to oppose whatever Erdogan decides. As for all those NGOs that used to provide aid to civilians in Afrin, Turkey has booted them out so that they cannot report on what the Turks are doing to consolidate their control.
The article claims there are “terrorist” attacks in Afrin, without providing any evidence except the word of 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 operates inside Turkey, not in Syria. Nor is there evidence that the members of the Kurdish YPG have ever wanted to “separate” from Syria. It’s Turkish propaganda, to justify to the Syrians the rough manner in which the Turkish military “cleansed” Afrin of its Kurds.
It’s not surprising that the “police chief in Afrin” – who is a willing collaborator with the Turkish occupiers of Afrin – would claim that “99% of the [terrorist] attack” were the work of the PKK.” But the PKK is an organization of Turkish, not Syrian, Kurds, and there is no independent confirmation that Turkish Kurds have managed to cross the border, well-guarded by Turkish troops, and infiltrated into Afrin. The author objects to describing either the PKK or the Kurdish forces that used to be in Afrin (those forces are not identified, but they are the YPG, the People’s Protection Units, that fought ISIS alongside the Americans) as “separatist”; for now, what the PKK wants is greater autonomy within Turkey, and “separatism” at this point is still a very distant goal.
There is one type of “separatism” in Syria that the Turks are encouraging. Turkish forces have been busy “separating” Afrin from Syria and tying it ever closer to the Turkish economy: connecting Afrin to the Turkish electricity grid, making mandatory the use of Turkish cell phones and currency; fostering cross-border trade with Turkey by companies in Afrin, rather than re-connecting them with businesses in Syria. It is Turkey that has forced Afrin to separate from Syria through its occupation.
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….
What the NYT reporter claims to be standard security measures of other NATO forces besides Turkey are, in fact, most unusual. Neither the North American nor the European members of NATO normally put their military headquarters abroad in “buildings with high concrete blast walls” nor do they seal off, in cities where they have those headquarters, “a green zone” that includes major thoroughfares that have been blocked to all traffic except that of the military. Most likely the NYT reporters were thinking of the “Green Zone” in Baghdad, where American diplomats and military men lived and worked, and assumed, wrongly, that this was standard for NATO forces dispatched to other countries.
Under the self-anointed Padishah, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, there is no free press in Turkey; more journalists are imprisoned in Turkey than in any other country in the world. Thousands of journalists in Turkey have permanently lost their jobs.; some have changed professions; others have left the country. As for freedom of assembly, the occasional non-violent anti-regime protests are quickly and violently suppressed, even when they are not political in nature; the Gezi Park protest was a popular revolt against an urban development plan that would have reduced the size of Istanbul’s most popular park.
The Kurdish minority continues to be oppressed in Turkey – a point that might have been made, and elaborated upon, by the NYT, as relevant to a report on the expulsion of the Kurds from Afrin, on the Syrian-Turkish border.
Economically, the Kurdish areas in Turkey receive far less government development money than do areas where the Turks live. The Kurds have more to complain of than their relative impoverishment. They are especially sensitive to Turkish suppression of Kurdish culture. Kurds have been arrested just for playing Kurdish music or possessing Kurdish music CDs; Kurdish is forbidden as a language of instruction in the schools, both public and private; parents are pressured by officials not to give their children Kurdish names; Kurdish history is not part of the national curriculum; in the past even the words “Kurd” and “Kurdistan” were prohibited; until 1991, Kurds were officially described as “mountain Turks.”
As for the rights of women, under Erdogan there has been a slide backward. Erdogan has stressed “family values,” which in his Islamic version means he discourages women in the workplace (Turkey has the lowest percentage of women working in the OECD); he has stated that he does not believe that men and women are equal; he supports the traditional role of the husband as unquestioned master within the family; he has encouraged the wearing of the hijab; he has built more than 20,000 new mosques, where Muslim misogyny is unavoidably preached; in this new atmosphere, in recent years the number of honor killings have spiked.
The criticism of the NYT piece on Afrin is withering:
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.
The NYT piece might have been written in Ankara. A minder took the reporters around, making sure they talked only with people who would say the right things: Turkish officials in Afrin, and Syrian Arabs in the city, sure to express their gratitude for how well they are being protected by the Turks. No mention is made of the 160,000 Kurds who have fled from Afrin, or of where they have gone, and why. All we learn is that Syrian Arabs who were refugees in Turkey are now back in Syria, not in their original homes (which may have been damaged or destroyed in the civil war), but in the homes that have suddenly been made available, and where they are “protected: by the Turkish military.
The NYT has engaged in “ethnic cleansing” of its own: a story about Afrin, where Kurds had lived as the overwhelming majority for centuries, is now all about Turks and Arabs. Not a single Kurd – among Afrin’s expellees — was contacted, much less interviewed, for the story.
It’s all right, New York Times. No need to explain. We are used to it. We didn’t expect better from you. We didn’t expect anything at all.
First published in Jihad Watch.