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Dec 24 2018

“America is withdrawing from the world” – Turkish media on the week’s events

Turkish media portrayed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan happily proclaiming by the end of last week that his administration had made history by extracting a huge concession from U.S. President Donald Trump in Syria.

On Monday, though, pro-government outlets focused on another topic that had apparently come up in the historic phone call between the two presidents: Turkey’s requests for the United States to extradite Fethullah Gülen, the leader of a religious movement blamed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government for the July 2016 coup attempt.

Türkiye and Akşam, two pro-government dailies, devoted their front pages to comments by Erdoğan, who said Trump had assured him work was underway to deport Gülen. The preacher has been a resident of the U.S. state of Pennsylvania since 1999.

Aydınlık, a leftist-nationalist daily, reported comments by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu who signalled a shift in Turkey’s Syria policy by declaring his willingness to cooperate with Syrian President Bashar Assad if he won free and fair elections.

Turkey’s Islamist government has been one of the sternest opponents of Assad’s regime since its violent suppression of protests in 2011, and has been a major source of support for Syrian opposition groups throughout the conflict.

On Tuesday, secularist daily Cumhuriyet returned to a topic it has dwelt on for much of 2018 – Turkey’s economy, and the alarming signs that the country is heading for a prolonged financial crisis.

Cumhuriyet’s front page reported that this year’s budget deficit had risen to 54.5 billion lira ($10.2 billion), with the huge amount of money spent on interest repayments accounting for a large portion of that. Meanwhile, employment has fallen, and official unemployment figures have neared 4 million – doubtless related to the 5.7 percent decrease in manufacturing this year.

The figures are stark, and have been for much of this year. Yet with the vast majority of Turkey’s media in the hands of the government, critical reporting on the ailing economy is unlikely to reach the majority of Turkish citizens, despite Cumhuriyet’s efforts.

Rather, the main focus this week has been on Syria and the military operation against Syrian Kurdish forces east of the River Euphrates declared by Erdoğan earlier this month.

On Tuesday, the pro-government daily newspaper Star and Islamist pro-Erdoğan daily Yeni Akit both contributed to the war effort with front-page stories on child hostages they reported had been taken by the Syrian Kurdish militias to use as human shields against a Turkish incursion.

The stories, and the emotive pictures of child soldiers carrying guns, came a day before Trump announced suddenly via tweet his decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria, where they had been deployed in support of the Kurdish militias targeted by Turkey. These militias – the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Syrian Democratic Forces and their political affiliates –served a vital role in the fight against the extremist jihadist Islamic State (ISIS), but Ankara views them as terrorist groups due to what it says are their links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought in Turkey for Kurdish self-rule for three decades.

Trump’s tweet had not yet taken his advisers and the rest of the world by surprise on Wednesday morning, but Türkiye newspaper was already lauding the U.S. president’s softened stance towards Turkey after a difficult year in U.S.-Turkish relations.

Yeni Akit, meanwhile, returned to its refrain of blaming followers of Hungarian-American investor George Soros for working against Turkey, claiming they had been attempting to stage a “Yellow Vests” style protest movement in Turkey in order to prevent an attack on northeast Syria.

The news story makes some reference to brochures it says were distributed by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) calling for protests, but there has been no concerted campaign to oppose the planned intervention in Turkey.

The newspaper’s front pages in recent weeks have not shied away from conspiracy theories involving Soros, with one story saying Turkish activists linked to the investor had been involved in planning protests not only in Turkey but also in Egypt in 2013.

By Thursday the news of the U.S. withdrawal had seized headlines of a good number of pro-government dailies, which otherwise continued running stories detailing the faults of the YPG – an “organisation for hire”, according to Star’s front page – and other Kurdish armed groups.

Other newspapers including the liberal Islamist daily Karar reported that Turkey and the United States had agreed a deal on the sale of U.S. Patriot missiles.

That the story emerged hours before Trump’s tweet led to observers linking the two events. Turkey has caused headaches for the United States throughout the year by insisting on purchasing a missile defence system from Russia, threatening the interoperability of NATO defence systems.

Cumhuriyet and the leftist daily BirGün devoted space on their front pages to images from the building site of Istanbul’s new airport, where heavy rains caused floods high enough to engulf buses on Wednesday.

The situation in Syria continued to dominate the country’s headlines on Friday, with three prominent pro-government dailies reporting on Erdoğan’s meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The pair agreed to work together in Syria after what Star called “stability negotiations”, a collaboration that will be a blow for the significant portion of U.S. lawmakers who view Iranian influence in the region as a danger to be countered.

Aydınlık celebrated the planned U.S. withdrawal, which it said had “buried” a “Greater Middle East Project” that aimed to divide the Middle East on ethnic and sectarian lines.

The project has long been a central part of the newspaper’s narrative, and before the Turkish government took a decisive stance against the PKK when peace talks collapsed in 2015, many of Aydınlık’s stories said the ruling party was working as a subcontractor for the United States.

BirGün’s front page warned that celebrations from opponents of the United States may be premature, quoting analysts who said U.S. troops may withdraw but the country would never fully abandon the region.

However, by Saturday, it seemed the United States was stepping closer to doing just that, with news that its air operations in Syria would likely end added to Trump’s declared intent to pull out of Afghanistan. “America is withdrawing from the world,” ran Karar’s Saturday morning headline.