This March some 400,000 people fled the northern Syrian city of Afrin. Departing mostly on foot, they took whatever they could carry. By night families with young children slept along the roadside in hostile and contested territory. Even as they fled, they were targeted by the same Turkish planes that had already cut off Afrin’s water and electricity supplies and destroyed its last hospital.
Those who sought refuge in neighboring Shahba province found it blockaded by both Syrian government forces and Islamist rebels. Humanitarian relief was kept out; people with life-threatening diseases and injuries were kept in. Many who sought refuge in abandoned homes were maimed and killed by landmines that ISIS had planted as it retreated. Infrastructure was destroyed and most water was contaminated. The food supply was unreliable. Children and the elderly died of diseases that have been eradicated across most of the world.
Those who stayed in Afrin fared little better. Islamist rebels kidnapped, tortured, and disappeared civilians, looted everything they could carry, forced the last remaining Yazidis to convert to Islam, and extorted money from prisoners’ families in ISIS-style execution videos. The new occupiers themselves imposed demographic change and extended “Turkification” policies from Turkey’s Kurdish southeast into northern Syria.
Formerly Arabic-Kurdish bilingual schools were forced to stop teaching in Kurdish, as Turkish instead became an obligatory language. Afrin was now decorated with Turkish flags and even posters of President Erdoğan. An administration had previously been democratically elected, with a 50 percent quota for female representatives, today has an all-male administration chosen by Ankara.
You may not have known all this was happening — because the international media did not care.
There was perhaps no greater example of moral clarity in the seven-year conflict. A Turkish state that aided and abetted ISIS, boasting NATO’s second-largest army, attacked a region that had not only lost thousands of its sons and daughters in the struggle against the Islamic State, but given refuge to over 300,000 displaced people. Airstrikes decimated homes, hospitals, and schools. All kinds of atrocities were perpetrated.
The world could see an unprovoked invasion and occupation unfold in real time. But the loudest response was silence. Western statesmen and international media unquestioningly parroted talk of the “legitimate security interests of Turkey” and the “need for restraint on both sides.” To the extent that the public did hear about this conflict, they were told only of the latest episode in the “fight against terrorism.” Such was the basis for fresh slanders, and fresh attacks, on the people of Afrin.
Indeed, even on the very first day of the operation, the Associated Press reported that Turkey had bombed Afrin to target ISIS. They took the post down only after hundreds of people had informed them that there was no ISIS presence in Afrin — and after several media outlets repeated their assertion uncritically. Their clarification noted that a Turkish official had mentioned ISIS — suggesting that the AP had uncritically reported a Turkish claim without so much as a routine investigation.
Coverage like this continued in subsequent days. When a Kurdish fighter from the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) in Afrin blew herself up rather than allow herself to be captured by Turkish-backed militias, the New York Times said that “an American ally, the Kurds in northern Syria, carried out a suicide attack against the Turkish military in Afrin. It puts the U.S. in the awkward position of allying with suicide bombers.” A leading international media outlet thus uncritically demonized “the Kurds” as “suicide bombers,” reducing the entire defense of Afrin to the possibility of American hand-wringing over a single tactical choice.
British prime minister Theresa May aided this narrative when she referred to “Kurdish terrorism” in a statement justifying Turkish engagement in northern Syria. She didn’t refer to an organization or to a group but criminalized an entire people. That raises the question: Since when is terrorism an ethnic attribute?
International media was quick to adopt Turkey’s claim to be fighting “Kurdish terrorism.” This was firstly wrong insofar as it reinforced the government discourse invoking “terrorism” in order to justify oppressive measures. But it was also notable how correspondents simplistically described the population of Afrin, the supposed “terrorist” base, as “the Kurds.” In fact, Afrin was until then a multi-ethnic, democratically governed entity. Confusing diverse ethnic groups and framing the conflict as just another case of “typical Middle Eastern” strife — one in which the aggressor’s case is reported uncritically alongside that of the victims — they disregarded the fact that Turkey’s attack on Afrin was a grave assault on democracy and human rights.
This also stood in stark contrast to the earlier nonstop coverage and praise of the People’s Protection Units’ (YPG’s) defense of Kobani back in 2015. Back then, international media glorified the bravery of the Kurdish women fighters, emphasized the steep odds that the YPG/J faced, and emphasized the importance of their success. Even the city’s progress after liberation was well-documented.
If media coverage of the two battles contrasted significantly, in reality the war against ISIS in Kobani and the defense of Afrin against Turkish attack were part of one same fight: northern Syria’s struggle for democracy, pluralism, and women’s liberation in the face of terrorism and dictatorship. There was, however, one big difference. One battle aligned with Western interests in the Middle East, and one threatened them; hence one was praised in international media and the other was attacked.
Truth to Power
International public opinion — and eventually, government action — is shaped by the narrative that the media provides. It thus has the responsibility to speak truth to power, to stand with those who are subject to atrocities, and to stand against those who violate basic human rights. Of course, there are journalists who risk their lives on the ground to tell these stories, who especially deserve support. It is tragic to see foreign media outlets unquestioningly publish Turkish government statements about Afrin even as Turkish journalists, academics, and students are harassed, attacked, and jailed for questioning the war.
Telling in this was the example of Mehmet Aksoy, a co-founder of he Region magazine. He traveled to northern Syria in June 2017 to make the world remember people it wanted to forget. He sought to tell their story on their own terms, free from the confines of mainstream narratives. He reported on the first free local elections in Syria’s history. He trained other journalists to better tell their own stories. He documented the liberation of Raqqa — the struggle, hope, pain, and resolve that it took to free a city from ISIS, after its years of atrocities.
Mehmet was willing to give his life to make the world notice the stories that northern Syria had to tell. And one year ago, he did give his life. On September 26, 2017, ISIS attacked a media office in a liberated area of Raqqa, killing him and several others. His funeral was broadcast live on the BBC — the same BBC that would soon turn a blind eye to Afrin. Because he had lived most of his life in Europe, European media told his story — ignoring the other journalists killed in the same attack.
When we remember Mehmet’s life and legacy, we remember the responsibility we as journalists have to Afrin. Outlets that cover the Middle East should strive to do what he did: to challenge the narratives of the powerful, to refuse to equate liberators with oppressors, and to tell overlooked stories no matter who has a vested interest in ensuring that people remain unaware of them.
Afrin was a test of those principles, and one that most international media failed. As its people remain displaced in Shahba, unable to return to their homes and lacking clean water, food, and medical care, that test continues. We must continue to speak out on what is taking place in Afrin, and on the media’s own role, so that it cannot happen again.
It is now six months since Afrin was occupied by forces that could not tolerate the city’s championing of pluralism, freedom, and democracy. Defending these principles demands that media understand that a “both sides” framing of conflict aids the perpetrators of violence and demonizes the victims who resist. If media simply echoes the narratives promoted by powerful states defending their interests, it will surely fail in its task.