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How Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera converged for Turkey’s operation in Syria

  • 1 Nov 2019

Despite the strong enmity between the Qatari owners of Al Jazeera and the Saudi owners of Al Arabiya, their English coverage took a largely similar tone, and both failed to present Turkish ground realities in an accurate or fair manner.

FILE- In this Jan. 1, 2015, file photo, staff members of Al-Jazeera International work at the news studio in Doha, Qatar. Doha-based news network Al-Jazeera, long one of the crown jewels of Qatar’s outreach to the world, now finds itself blocked in Arab nations and pushed into the corner in the diplomatic crisis. (AP Photo/Osama Faisal, File) ( AP )

Turkey has been under a propaganda blitz ever since it launched Operation Peace Spring against YPG/PKK terrorists and despite claims of providing an alternative to Western-centric coverage, Gulf news networks, such as Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera English have proved no different.

While Al Arabiya’s editorial stance is perhaps understandable given the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Turkey following the Qatar blockade and killing of Jamal Khashoggi, Al Jazeera’s becomes more difficult to explain.

With a few exceptions, their coverage has fallen in line with the false narratives found in Western outlets - That Turkey is at war with the Kurdish people (or their legitimate representatives), that Turkey is looking to occupy land for the sake of expansionism, and that Turkey’s objectives are in line with those of extremists.

Other problematic aspects of the coverage include the parroting of YPG talking points - thereby legitimising the terror group and allowing it to set the editorial tone - factual inaccuracies, and the omission of facts, such as the link between the YPG and PKK or the mention of atrocities they have carried out.

Where the Turkish perspective was included, it was often relegated to the bottom of articles where they are less likely to be read. These will be looked at in more detail further, but first, it’s essential to establish the context of Turkey’s recent decision to launch Operation Peace Spring.

Decades of terror

Since 1984, Turkey has battled the PKK terrorist organisation as it launched a campaign targeting civilians and security forces, resulting in the deaths of more than 40,000 citizens.

When the war against the Syrian regime began in 2011, local grievances against Assad’s massacres were exploited by terrorist groups to further their agendas. Most infamously, these included Daesh, which established a state founded on its terrorist ideology until forces defeated it from across the world and locally.

What is less reported on is the PKK’s efforts to use the chaos of the Syrian Civil War to work towards its aim of an ethno-nationalist Kurdish state carved out of territory in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. The manifestation of this dream in Syria was the YPG.

Following the US abandonment of the Free Syrian Army in October 2015, the YPG became their preferred ally in the fight against Daesh, despite strong condemnation by Turkey over its ties to the PKK.

With US support, YPG terrorists were able to seize Syrian lands bordering Turkey in a development that allowed them unfettered access to their PKK parent organisation on the other side.

While the PKK’s YPG affiliate was building its power base in Syria, in Turkey, the group was carrying out a series of devastating suicide bomb attacks, kidnappings, and murders. One notable example of these attacks includes the bombing of a stadium in central Istanbul in December 2016 that killed 48 civilians and members of the security forces.

That was the context under which Turkey decided to secure the safety of its population by creating a safe zone on the Syrian side of the border that was free of terrorists, irrespective of whether they called themselves Daesh or YPG. 

The unanimity of these concerns is agreed upon by all sectors of Turkish society, across all political, ethnic, and social lines of the country.

It is agreed upon by the US and the European Union themselves, as both proscribe the PKK as a terrorist group and in the case of the US that have accepted that the PKK and YPG are inextricably linked.

Misrepresentations

Turkey is home to the largest Kurdish population in the world. It has had heads of state of Kurdish origin, ruling party politicians who are ethnically Kurdish, sports stars, actors, etc., and the list goes on.

While Kurds have suffered discriminatory measures under past Turkish governments, since coming to power in 2002, the governing AK party has worked to reverse such policies, enabling Kurdish citizens to practice their culture unhindered.

The Turkish government even brought the PKK to the negotiating table to bring peace to the country, but the terrorist group squandered that effort.

Ankara’s war against the PKK and its affiliates is not one aimed at the Kurdish people, their culture or their language.

Even after the Syrian Civil War began, it was Turkey where most Syrian Kurds fled,  and not into the hands of YPG terrorists - with estimates of around 350,000 people crossing into the country from Syria. These refugees were given sanctuary in the country with no expectation of them in return, unlike Kurds living in YPG territory, who - like others living under their rule - are forced to join the terror group’s ranks, with no exception made for children according to HRW.

This context is largely absent from both Al Jazeera English and Al Arabiya’s coverage. Instead, the catch-all terms ‘Kurds’, ‘Syrian Kurds’ and ‘Kurdish Forces’ were used to describe the YPG terrorists. 

One Al Jazeera headline went “Erdogan warns Kurds as Syria ceasefire gets off to rocky start.”

On Al Arabiya’s English website, one headline read: “Kurds welcome German plan for international force in Syria”.

These are not isolated examples as a simple Google search will reveal, but appear to have been the editorial policy at both news organisations. For perspective, the equivalent would be to describe Daesh as Arabs.

By labelling the YPG as ‘Kurds’ or ‘Kurdish forces’, they are de-facto elevated to the role of representatives of the Kurdish people as a whole. That is a disservice to the vast majority of Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere who are opposed to the PKK group’s terrorist ideology and have often found themselves victims of it. 

When the US coalition launched campaigns against Daesh in Syria to protect their interests, such actions were not represented by Al Jazeera as wars against entire communities, such as Sunnis, but instead portrayed as counter-terrorism measures. By contrast, Turkey’s operation to protect its borders is portrayed as ethnically motivated.

The framing of the YPG as ‘Kurds’ also presents what is essentially a conflict waged to ensure the security of Turkey’s citizens, as a war motivated by mutual ethnic grievances. Such a representation is not only factually wrong but feeds into the racist tropes that people in the Middle East are primarily motivated by ethnic hatred.

In this aspect, Al Jazeera English goes a step further and even describes the PKK parent organisation as simply ‘Kurdish fighters’ - Completely whitewashing it of its bloody history.

Removing context

The problematic coverage of both news outlets was not just limited to the designation given to the YPG terrorists. 

Both also followed the Western media by taking out of context comments made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan has warned that the Turkish military would “Crush the heads of terrorists”. 

Both Al Jazeera English and Al Arabiya published articles that drop the word “terrorists” and instead swapped it out with “Kurdish fighters” or “Kurdish militants”

While many news organisations possess guidelines on the use of the word ‘terrorist’, they do not apply to direct quotes made by a subject of the article. The intention, therefore, could be to add an emotive element to the quote by changing the target of President Erdogan’s warning from the security threat of ‘terrorists’ to the ethnic threat ‘Kurdish fighters’.

Red lines?

Al Jazeera is ultimately owned by the Qatari government and Dubai-based Al Arabiya by the Saudis. While in the case of Al Arabiya, the editorial agenda is clear cut, but the situation with Al Jazeera is not as straightforward.

Al Arabiya’s editorial line rarely strays from that of its owners, and it would be unimaginable to find articles critical of Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the news outlet.

While Al Jazeera covers some Qatari issues from a critical perspective, they are treated with velvet gloves. A more in-depth look at the English channel’s coverage reveals some no-go areas; controversies regarding Qatar’s World Cup bid, workers rights issues, and the effects of the country’s foreign entanglements in Syria and Libya are rarely covered.

Turkey and Qatar are allies, and it was the Turkish diplomatic intervention when the 2017 blockade of Qatar began that helped prevent its collapse against Saudi-led aggression.

Ankara responded to that crisis by shipping food to replenish Qatari supermarket shelves and sending soldiers to the country; A move whose significance became clear when reports emerged that Saudi Arabia was planning a military invasion of the country.

When the blockade was imposed on Qatar and Doha faced an existential threat to its safety, Turkish media provided nuance and historical context for Qatar’s security threats and its mistreatment at the hands of more powerful actors in the Gulf and the region. 

While Al Jazeera Arabic provided that nuance for Turkey’s recent operation, it was missing on the English channel, giving the impression that the network is working on two separate fronts.

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