New York Times condemned, lauded for report on Turkey’s occupation of Afrin

A New York Times article on the Turkish occupation of majority-Kurdish land inside Syria has become the subject of intense criticism on social media and praise from Turkey’s pro-government media.

Istanbul Bureau Chief Carlotta Gall said in an article published on Tuesday that Turkey “has become the only international force on the ground protecting some five million displaced and vulnerable civilians” in the mainly Kurdish region of Afrin.

Turkish soldiers “stand between millions of Syrians and potential slaughter”, Gall said.

Syrians in Afrin, many of whom settled there after hundreds of thousands of Kurds were forced to leave during a 2018 military intervention by Turkey, “were glad the Turks were there”, Gall said.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, run by a former adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, gave wide coverage to  Gall’s comments on Wednesday, referring to how she described Turkish troops preventing slaughter and protecting civilians. The pro-government Daily Sabah also jumped on the report, as did the Turkish Foreign Ministry, which retweeted the article.

Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch of January to March 2018 resulted in the displacement of an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 Kurds. Since then, Turkey-backed Syrian rebel groups who have control in the city have been accused of committing war crimes and rights violations.

Many people were shocked at the New York Times’ “one-sided report” considering the balanced approach that it often takes on disputed matters, Middle East analyst Seth Frantzman said in the Jerusalem Post.

Frantzman said the newspaper “appeared to only give Turkish military occupation officials and pro-Ankara voices a place”.

“The untold story is the overwhelming majority of indigenous Kurdish people were uprooted from their homes in Afrin, let alone the daily atrocities. Disgraceful,” Azad Nebi, a former aid worker in Erbil, Iraq, and a freelance journalist, said of the report in comments on Twitter.

Gall referred in the report to the departure of the Kurds, saying thousands of Kurdish families fled “along with the Kurdish fighters”, and “in their place came hundreds of thousands of Syrians from other areas, who have swollen the population, taking over homes and camping on farming land”.

“A little shocked at how successfully Turkey used the @nytimes for a message to the Biden administration through this piece,” said Ioannis Kalpouzos, a visiting assistant professor in human rights at Boston University School of Law.

“It begins by swiftly and gingerly putting aside the Turkish invasion ("criticised") and the cleansing of Kurds (they "fled"),” Kalpouzos said.

“Occupation is then presented as a force for good, not only “like any NATO force”, but also with ‘soft power’,” he said. “Turkey is "a good actor". Kurdish resistance is “persistent terror”. Yes, war is complex, occupiers are not all bad, but this is embarrassing.”

U.S. President Joe Biden was a strong advocate for Syria’s Kurds during his tenure as vice-president in the Obama administration. He has criticised Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds and commented on the growing authoritarianism of Erdoğan. He and the Turkish president have yet to speak since the U.S. elections in November and Biden’s inauguration in January.

Since 2018, long-term residents of Afrin have faced “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 centres. Ethnic-cleansing”, Frantzman said.

Between the conflict breaking out in 2011 and Turkey intervening in 2018, Afrin remained a relatively peaceful region as civil war ravaged the rest of Syria.

The Kurdish fighters who were pushed out in 2018 were part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), partners of the U.S.-led international coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS).

“Usually, when an indigenous population is expelled and other population is moved in, that is referred to as ethnic-cleansing,” Frantzman said. “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.”

Kurds were not allowed a voice in the reporting by the New York Times, and were “only pejoratively referred to as ‘separatists’, which they are not. They are the local people of Afrin”, Frantzman said.