Turkey has a dismal record on freedom of the press, propaganda, and manipulation of the media. But many experts were shocked when The New York Times, one of the most respected news sources in the world, published an article that seemed to say that the Turkish occupation of Afrin had been good for the region, and that Turkey’s brutal land grab was somehow a humanitarian mission. The NYT received a backlash of criticism for the article since it was published on February 16, 2021.

The reality is that horrific human rights abuses are committed every day by the Turkish occupying forces featured in the article, “In Turkey’s Safe Zone in Syria, Security and Misery Go Hand in Hand,” by the NYT’s Istanbul bureau chief Carlotta Gall. Observers wasted no time in presenting the many atrocities of the occupation by the Turkish military and Turkish-backed militias.

“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,” writes the staff of Ahval News in their article, “New York Times condemned, lauded for report on Turkey’s occupation of Afrin.”

“If you only read this NY Times article, you’d think the Turkish army simply helped refugees go home to Afrin. That’s not what happened,” wrote Matthew Petti, writer and researcher on the Middle East currently at the Quincy Institute. “Turkey ethnically cleansed the native Kurdish population of Afrin and forced in refugees from other parts of Syria.”

Meghan Bodette, Middle East researcher and founder of the Missing Afrin Women Project, called out the NYT for ignoring the atrocities committed against women under the occupation. She wrote, “As someone who has worked intensively to raise awareness of just one aspect of the many atrocities taking place in Turkish-occupied Efrîn—the rampant, systemic violence and discrimination against women—I’m horrified that this article would be published as written.”

“Do NATO governments and their friends get a free ethnic cleansing pass from the @nytimes?” she wrote.

Reporters and experts spared no words in calling the piece out as propaganda for the Turkish state.

Alison Meuse, a respected reporter who has covered Middle East for National Public Radio, the Asia Times, the Times of Israel and others called the NYT article “an atrocious piece of propaganda, devoid of context, background or nuance.”

“[T]his does far more damage to Afrinis than any Turkish state propaganda piece can,” said Middle East commentator Ariz Kader, host of @SiyasetPod. Kader explained that the article was more harmful than Turkish government propaganda “[b]ecause 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).”

In a scathing article by Seth Franzman in The Jerusalem Post, Franzman says, “The New York Times is now accused of whitewashing Turkey’s occupation of Afrin in an article on Tuesday.” 

Franzman points out that there is only one woman quoted in the article, who the author notes is holding a toddler. The woman describes her bedridden husband and the shortages of food and firewood, and notes that, “everything is very hard.” Gone are the woman elected officials from Afrin — roughly 40 percent of Afrin’s local leadership were women — who would otherwise have been available for comment. Under Turkey’s occupation, nearly all of the administrators and officials are men.

There is no indication that the author spoke to any ethnic Kurds, opponents of the occupation, or any of the 300,000 refugees from the region. Instead, the author indicates that Turkey is playing the role of protector for those who have flooded into Afrin since the Turkish military invasion, most now living in the abandoned homes of Kurdish refugees. “Seeking protection from Turkey was their only option,” the NYT article says of current inhabitants of Afrin.

“Usually, when the indigenous population is expelled and other populations are moved in, it is called ethnic cleansing. In this case, Kurds were removed by Turkey and far-right religious extremist militias it controls, and Sunni Arabs and Turkmen were moved into Afrin.”

A rare open letter was also published by the Afrin Post to the NYT

“We, the Afrin Post, closely follow the details of what is happening in occupied Afrin, and we publish the news and reports in three languages​, Kurdish, Arabic, and English.

With regret, we read the article published by your newspaper, and we found it full of errors, contradictions and were astonished to see only a single viewpoint, that of the Turkish government.

Gall’s title implies that Afrin is made safe because of the Turkish occupation. It is clear that from the outset, the author intends to beautify the Turkish invasion and occupation. The article is so one-sided that the tone is more akin to the Turkish Anadolu Agency, not something found in such a revered publication as The New York Times.”

In addition, a large number of concerned experts sent letters directly to the NYT. These included experts such as Dr. David Phillips of the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs and Ms. Sinam Sherkany Mohamad, Co-Chair of the US Mission of the Syrian Democratic Council. At time of writing none of these have been published.

The article justifies Turkey’s occupation, indicating that it stabilized the region. The article quotes one of the Turkish managers, Orhan Akturk, a deputy governor overseeing Afrin and the Turkish province of Hatay. “Our main aim is to make their life more normal,” says Akturk.

The NYT quotes Akturk without any questions about whether life is “normal” for the 300,000 refugees from Afrin. It ignores that the region was stable before the Turkish military invasion.

The article also paints a rosy picture of Turkish efforts at turkification, including teaching schoolchildren in the Turkish language, not their native language. Someone presenting themselves as a Syrian activist is quoted as saying, “The Turkish language is spreading. It’s the will of the people.” But this is far from the will of the people. Most families want their children taught in their own language, not the language of the occupier.

“Turkish officials recently escorted journalists on a rare visit to Afrin, a district of northwestern Syria, where Turkey has created its own de facto safe zone along the border,” states the article. The article presents that the inhabitants the author spoke to — while presumably in the company of Turkish handlers — “made clear that they were glad the Turks were there, at least for now.”

The NYT article was so laudatory toward Turkey that it merited its own congratulatory piece from the Anadolu Agency, a news agency run by the authoritarian Turkish government. The Daily Sabah, another organ of Turkish propaganda, also published a special piece to praise the NYT article. Little gets published in Turkey without government approval. The Turkish government issues strict guidance to news organizations on how to cover issues and news events of the day. It couldn’t be more clear that the Turkish state was pleased with the piece.

Afrin was 97 percent Kurdish before Turkey invaded three years ago. Now it’s only 20 percent Kurdish. There is a name for forced demographic change. These numbers are no accident. Turkey is waging genocide.

The occupiers forced 300,000 residents to flee to camps like al-Shehba, where Turkish bombings continue over the 150,000 displaced persons. The occupiers terrorize local people who stay by rape, murder, theft, kidnappings, and other atrocities, as documented by the United Nations, Amnesty International, and other organizations. While the people of Afrin live in camps, Islamic extremists who are friendly to the authoritarian Turkish regime live in the houses of refugees.

“Violating basic principles of journalistic ethics—principles that include interviewing people on the receiving end of a war zone invasion—the article reads like a press release from the Turkish regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ignoring the enormous suffering endured by the thousands of original inhabitants of Afrin as a result of the Turkish-led occupation,” writes respected expert and activist Debbie Bookchin.

“The Turkish invasion of Afrin has been a humanitarian catastrophe,” says Bookchin. “No amount of propaganda from the authoritarian regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can erase the evidence on the ground of the grotesque human rights violations being perpetrated by Turkey, and it is shameful that the Times so completely missed the real story.”

The international community should be pressuring Turkey to withdraw its forces from Syria. Instead, we have Western reporters getting manipulated by Turkish handlers.