Turkish press reacts to pending Syria operation

Turkey’s media landscape offered mixed perspectives and reports as questions loom over a pending military operation in northeast Syria.

al-monitor Turkish soldiers stand next to a tank near the Turkish-Syrian border in Kilis province, Turkey Jan. 31, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Osman Orsal.
Diego Cupolo

Diego Cupolo

@diegocupolo

Topics covered

donald trump, syrian civil war, islamic state, ypg, turkish influence in syria, turkish intervention in syria, syrian kurds

Oct 7, 2019

The Turkish media is lively with speculation following US President Donald Trump's vow not to interfere with a much-anticipated Turkish military operation in Kurdish-administered northeast Syria and to pull American troops back from the area.

Unanswered questions over the depth of the operation, whether the United States will open the airspace to Turkish jets and the timing of Ankara’s third incursion into Syria dominate discussions in domestic broadcasts, print outlets and social media feeds.

More than 90% of the nation’s mainstream media outlets are pro-state and generally support operations against Kurdish militants in Syria — who are considered an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Ankara, the United States and the European Union designate as a terror group. Yet mixed reporting on fast-moving developments present a diversity of opinions and concerns as military forces make preparations on Turkey’s southern border.

As the operation will affect Syria’s Kurdish-majority region, currently administered by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the majority of Turkey’s Kurdish media outlets responded negatively to the news. Kurdish media reports focused on the work SDF forces had done to eliminate Islamic State militants from the region, as well as the possibility that IS detainees in the region could escape or pose a security threat as a result of the operation.

“That’s the main problem, what will happen with IS?” asked Mahmut Bozarslan, a Kurdish journalist based in Diyarbakir who writes for Al-Monitor. He said during an interview for this article, “People are afraid of this. If these detainees are released, what will happen if they come to Turkey?”

Mezopotamya Ajansı, a leading Kurdish news service, emphasized statements by SDF commanders, responses from deputies in the Kurdish-majority People's Democratic Party (HDP) and on criticism of Trump’s Syria policy from Brett McGurk, the former US special envoy on IS who resigned in December 2018 following the US president’s abrupt yet still unrealized decision to pull US troops from the region.

Meanwhile, pro-state outlets such as Yeni Safak pursued a predictable line of support for operation, presenting it as a “new hope” while reporting unverified news that 14,000 Free Syrian Army soldiers are being drafted to join the incursion.

Yusuf Erim, a political analyst for Turkey’s TRT public broadcaster, said Turkish mainstream media reports have been largely positive in their coverage of the pending operation and that journalists should be careful to differentiate between Kurds as an ethnic group and the PKK-linked forces Ankara is seeking remove from its southern border.

“The SDF mandate was very specific and that was to defeat [IS],” Erim told Al-Monitor. “The mandate for the SDF is over and their authority has nothing to do with governing northeast Syria or autonomy or fighting against America’s NATO allies, the Turks, so the SDF is greatly overstepping their bounds. … Any promises that the [People’s Protection Units] YPG portion of the SDF feels that the United States has given them is beyond reality.”

“The United States doesn’t owe the SDF anything,” he added.

Erim said the operation is backed by Turkey’s main political parties, with the exception of the HDP, predicting the Syria incursion would have 85% to 90% of the public's support.

Secular leftist media outlets like Bianet reported on Russian state reactions to the pending operation, while Gazete Duvar published a round table discussion on the significance of the military buildup. Journalist Aydin Selcen predicted the operation would start between Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain on the Syrian border.

“No doubt the rest is uncertain,” Selcen wrote. “What is evident is the operation will render the opposition, both in the public and the parliament, ineffective and will have a more restrictive effect on freedom of expression.”

Ali Topuz, editor of Gazete Duvar, said support of the Syrian incursion was higher than support for the government because the Turkish public is generally inclined to support any operation in which the PKK’s name is mentioned.

“Since the broadcasts are totally unilateral, this support always increases,” Topuz told Al-Monitor. “The problems that a possible resistance would create are not generally a subject of discussion before those problems arise — for example, before news of soldiers dying. And when this happens, it is regarded as the malignancy of the PKK rather then focusing on the operation itself. The former mainstream media and now the government-controlled media have always liked to be more hawkish than governments themselves.”

When asked if Turkish media reports have so far been accurate, Topuz said there was little misinformation at this point because of the limited amount of real information regarding potential military operations. Instead, he said the pro-state press has has mostly been producing supportive news reports with justifications for the pending incursion.

“Hurryiet and Sabah are widely circulated newspapers and they wrote that the PKK/YPG was panicking, that some militants had left the area and that the rest had started wearing civilian clothes,” Topuz told Al-Monitor. “They didn't even need to provide a legitimate source for this information.”

He added, “They wrote Trump's decision was, in fact, supporting Turkey’s decision [to enter northeast Syria] because the government told them so.”

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