- Turkish and Syrian-backed troops are now facing off in Kurdish-held Afrin
- In addition to the ground battle, a media war is being waged
- Turkish and Syrian outlets claim they are defending borders from terrorists
- Who the 'terrorist' is depends on which state the media outlet supports
By Ty Joplin
A critical aspect of any armed confrontation is the information provided about it through which the conflict is framed. People with guns are either freedom fighters, militias, combatants, terrorists, or even civilians depending on the agenda of the news source.
The problem of retrieving reliable information about quick, on-the-ground developments becomes compounded when there is a lack of independent media sources reporting events firsthand.
After Syrian regime-backed forces entered into Afrin to protect Kurdish militias from Turkey, the propaganda machines of Turkey, Syria and Iran kicked into high gear to win the media battle of framing the issues. Although propaganda outlets do a grave disservice by manipulating details to serve the state, when they are put side-by-side to compare their coverage of the same issue, fascinating trends appear.
Facts tell us one side of the story, but propaganda often arrange a mixture of facts, sentiments, and falsehoods to construct a sweeping narrative. For starters on Afrin, here are the basic facts:
The Basic Facts
Afrin is a Kurdish-held region in northwestern Syria. On Jan. 20, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch to use Turkish armed forces and Turkey-backed rebels factions in the FSA to oust Kurdish militias, primarily the YPG, from the region. Turkey believes the YPG to be a Syrian proxy of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a Kurdish group that has been warring with Turkey for decades.
The Kurds in Afrin reached out to Syria for help, and Syria has responded by sending National Defense Forces (NDF), a paramilitary group, into Afrin. Beyond that, the propaganda takes over.
Turkey’s Online War Machine
Turkey’s Anadolu Agency (AA) has faithfully reported what Turkish spokespeople have said on the Afrin offensive in addition to calling the YPG, among other groups in Syria, ‘terrorists’—a word the government uses for both the YPG and PKK.
In one of their breaking stories on the pro-Syrian regime incursion into Afrin, AA reprinted Turkish President Erdogan’s defense of his offensive: “It is impossible to give them [any terrorist organization] a chance [in Afrin]. They would pay a heavy price for it.”
(Hurriyet Daily News, Turkey)
AA included in the article, without citing any sources, that the NDF convoy turned back after being shelled to about ten kilometers away from Afrin. AA emphasizes and reiterates Turkey’s position on the offensive, which is that it is meant to secure Turkey’s borders and the Syrian regime is standing in the way of that goal.
Another, supposedly independent, private Turkish outlet, Hurriyet Daily News, reprinted much of the AA’s coverage, with a tiny disclaimer saying so, revealing the Turkish propaganda game as a combination of state and privately owned media outlets reifying the narrative that Turkey’s troops are just killing terrorists.
Mentions of civilian deaths are absent, or even outrightly denied by quoting Turkish Foreign Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu saying Turkey has not killed a single civilian, without question.
Most fascinatingly, one AA story casually mentions that the Afrin operation is also killing and clearing out ISIS from the region—a group that does not have a presence in Afrin. Any mention of ISIS, also known as Daesh, is tied to the discussion of the YPG/PKK, implying that they are either one monolithic group of ‘terrorists’ or that they are collaborating together. This story has been widely re-printed by other pro-Turkey media outlets, including the Daily Sabah and Yeni Şafak.
Read an excerpt of the story below that groups Kurdish militias and ISIS as essentially the same thing:
(Yeni Safak, Turkey)
Another AA story supposedly corroborates the details of Turkey’s military intervention by quoting a professor: “Some say Turkey is attacking civilians in Afrin. I can’t agree with it, and I’m from military, I know what I am talking about… Turkey is targeting only terrorist organizations -- PKK and PYD. Turkey is very careful, every step in Afrin is calibrated, adjusted.”
The same story also paints Turkey as a ‘victim’ of the Syrian Civil War, against which the Afrin offensive is merely a reaction. Turkey then, isn’t aggressing or invading, but merely defending.
Syria’s ‘Noble Defense’ Game
Syrian state propaganda, on the other hand, paints the Turkish forces as violent and cruel invaders stealing away the lands of Syria from its people.
For Syria’s SANA news outlet, its stance is made clear in a headline: “Turkish regime continues its aggression on Afrin for 33rd consecutive day, 5 civilians injured.”
Turkish troops are invaders, FSA militias helping the Kurds are ‘mercenaries,’ civilians are dying en masse, and the headline image of wreckage visually depicts what the story is trying to portray: that nothing good is coming from the Afrin offensive.
There is no mention of which villages Turkey has captured (military success/movement); only discussions of whom Turkey has killed. Likewise, there is no mention of YPG movement or retreats, or even that the NDF convoy entered Afrin then was promptly shelled by Turkish artillery. The story is simply that Turkey kills Syrian civilians.
Al Masdar News, supposedly independent outlet whose official mantra includes giving the Assad government the “benefit of the doubt,” because “no one else seems to,” faithfully reprinted pro-regime sentiments:
“The one thing that’s clear is the determination of the Syrian government to reclaim every last kilometer of Syrian sovereign territory, this is the real story here,” says someone quoted.
Note here the explicit attempts to frame the ‘real story’ to be Syrian border security, a more politically neutral and uncontroversial sentiment than “military intervention.” To reclaim one’s borders is merely the logical thing a state would do against an aggressor.
Syrian propaganda even used images of dead or suffering children to visually depict Turkey’s incursion into Afrin. The picture below 'debunks' Syrian news' cooptation of children from other battles as supposed victims of the Afrin offensive.
Syria-sponsored SANA also utilizes the propaganda strategy of conflating adversaries with ISIS/Daesh in media coverage. SANA reports that Syrian popular forces (NDF) went into Afrin to “support the locals against the aggression waged by the Turkish regime on the city since January 20, and to confront Daesh (ISIS) terrorist organization.”
Keywords here are quoted and decoded in parentheses: “Supporting (military convoy of NDF),” “locals (YPG),” against “aggression(Operation Olive Branch),” “waged (acted out),” by both the “Turkish regime (Turkish government)” and “Daesh (terrorism).”
According to SANA, it’s not an intervention so much as an altruistic act of ‘support’ for locals against terrorism.
Iranian news outlets largely replicate the strategy of Syrian news sources, claiming Turkish actions are aggressive and invasive, and that Syrian loyalists are merely responding to threats and supporting ‘locals.’
Two Key Media Strategies
Two propaganda strategies stand out and are used by both sides of the conflict.
First, both Turkish and Syrian outlets explicitly claim they are fighting against terrorism, specifically ISIS. Because ISIS is considered a kind of universal evil, then any fight against it is considered morally righteous: both sides realize if they just claim there are fighting against Turkey/ISIS or Kurds/ISIS, then their cause can be framed as a moral one that is good for the world.
This is utilized despite there being no discernible ISIS presence in Afrin. But that doesn't matter to propaganda machines seeking to drum up support for military incursions. ISIS is a demon conjured by one side to justify its attack on the other. They aren’t merely fighting against a political opponent but ISIS—evil incarnate; a threat to all populations and thus something that needs to be urgently stamped out, even if it isn't there.
Second, and more subtly, both Turkish and Syrian outlets seek to make their own side passive while making the other side active/aggressive. In this way, they are simply defending themselves and reacting to the aggression of the other side.
For Turkey, the offensive into Afrin is because Turkey are in fact the victims, and they are defending their own borders. The Syrian response is then a kind of invasion to stop this from happening.
For Syria, the offensive of the NDF into Afrin is just one to secure Syria’s borders from the invading Turkish forces.
Taking both at face value presents an incoherent picture of both sides passively responding to each other, begging the question of who started the conflict in the first place.
As the Afrin offensive continues and Syria is immersed in even more chaos, each side will undoubtedly use the piling civilian death count against the other as well.
In attempting to “know,” what is happening in conflict zones like Afrin in Syria, decoding what news sources are and are not saying, in addition to how they are saying it, is invaluable.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.
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