Something has changed in the way we cover Syria. In 2015, Turkey began building a wall along the length of its 550-mile frontier with the war zone. The reasons were valid: Turkey wanted to cut the jihadi highway through which tens of thousands of foreigners had travelled into Syria and joined up with Isis. It also wanted to stop them travelling back the other way.
The wall is now almost finished. It is three metres high, made of reinforced concrete topped with razor wire, and mounted with security cameras and automated guns. The area around the wall is heavy with soldiers and parts are periodically declared restricted military zones – especially when operations like the battle for Afrin – which is in northern Syria – are underway.
Before the wall was built, journalists could cross Turkey’s border into rebel-held Syria almost freely. For three years, we could report from the ground on the rebel campaign, the rise of extremism and, most importantly, the hideous toll the war was taking on civilians. The price for any reporter who did so was being blacklisted in Damascus, meaning that we could not cover the other side of the frontlines. But the big news organisations coped by embedding one reporter with the rebels, and another with the regime.
Now, though, any access across the Turkish border requires permission from Ankara and usually comes on condition of a government escort. The days of free reporting from northern Syria are over. The Turkish government organises mass trips to see the refugee camps it is running or the new order it has brought to Jarablus, a town run by Isis until the Turkish army and its rebel allies drove them out. But access to Afrin, the Kurdish border pocket currently buckling under Turkish bombardment? Forget it.
Furthermore, both local and foreign journalists based in Turkey have been issued with a stiff set of instructions from Ankara on covering the Afrin operation. We have been warned not to ‘cooperate’ with the YPG, the Kurdish militia running Afrin or its political wing the PYD, and that we risk prosecution for making ‘terror propaganda’ if we do. We are reminded that the battle is one against Kurdish terrorists, not civilians, and assured that only militants are dying under the waves of Turkish bombs.
For Turkish reporters, the rules are even stricter. They have been told that reports of civilian casualties are ‘information pollution’ and that the international media is taking terrorist groups as its sources. They have been instructed not to quote the foreign press verbatim. News that ‘boosts the morale’ of the Kurdish side is banned. Most Turkish media, even away from the rabidly pro-government end, are sticking to a jingoistic and unquestioning script. Little wonder, when you consider that Turkey is the world’s biggest jailer of journalists. More than 300 people have been arrested for opposing the Turkish operation on social media since it started on 21 January.
The YPG and its supporters are also doing their share of news manipulation. Scores of images from previous battles and bombings in Aleppo, Yemen and Libya have been circulated online, purporting to be from Afrin. In Europe, the anti-war narrative has been seized by the PKK, the banned Kurdish terror group from which the YPG originated. The PKK’s separatist guerrilla war in eastern Turkey has left more than 40,000 dead over three decades, and it is relaxed about targeting Kurds as well as Turks in the name of its struggle. Tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds have fled YPG-controlled areas for refuge in Europe, desperate to avoid the group’s policy of forced conscription and its crackdowns on Kurdish political opponents.
Behind the spin, it is Syrian civilians who are – again – bearing the brunt. An independent war monitor says that 61 non-combatants have now died in Afrin, including 18 children. You will find little news of that in the Turkish press. Even issuing broad anti-war statements in Turkey today can land you with a court case, as the Turkish Medical Association discovered earlier this week. One reporter satirised the situation by publishing eleven paragraphs of gobbledegook. ‘Anti-war (journalists) can ‘express’ their opinions like this,’ he wrote. ‘Lsyıkou ykolmus cmomnuyy!’
There is one aspect of the battle that Turkish reporters are being encouraged to cover, however. ‘Remind audiences the operation is being carried out with weapons systems designed and built in Turkey,’ the government advisory reads. And so they have. ‘Turkish Armed Forces are using locally-made vehicles, weapons, and ammunition, including howitzers and drones, in Turkey’s ongoing Operation Olive Branch in Afrin,’ began a report on the state news agency Anadolu on Friday.
President Erdogan has made it his aim to make Turkey self-sufficient in defence by 2023, the centenary of the modern republic. His aim is two-fold: firstly, such aspirations play well with the nationalist bloc whose support he is currently relying on to push legislation through parliament. Secondly, he wants to reduce Turkey’s reliance on Nato, whose member-states currently sell Ankara most of its hardware and therefore hold leverage over its defence policy. Experts say it is unlikely he will achieve this in its totality within the next five years – but he’s having a good crack . At the biannual Istanbul arms fair last May, two cavernous halls were given over to Turkey’s defence industry. The star of the show was an armed drone made almost entirely of Turkish components, manufactured by the family company of Erdogan’s son-in-law. The drone is currently being used by Turkish forces in eastern Turkey, northern Iraq – and Syria.
The fair was also the venue for a major deal between British manufacturer Rolls Royce and Turkish defence company Kale. The two will jointly set up an aerospace training academy in Istanbul where Turkey will design and build an indigenous jet engine. That will be fitted in the country’s first home-built fighter jet – which itself will be designed by BAE Systems under a £100 million deal signed by Theresa May during her meeting with Erdogan last February.
‘It marks the start of a new and deeper trading relationship with Turkey and will potentially secure British and Turkish jobs and prosperity for decades to come,’ a pleased Mrs May said at the time, before giving a brief and weak nod to Erdogan’s sliding human rights record.
Eleven months on it is unsurprising, then, that the British prime minister seems unwilling to acknowledge the children dying under Turkish bombs. ‘We recognise Turkey has a legitimate interest in the security of its borders,’ a spokesman for Mrs May said as the Afrin operation got underway. ‘The UK is committed to working closely with Turkey and other allies to find solutions that provide stability, refrain from escalating the situation and protect Turkey’s security interests.’
Alice Beale is a Middle East correspondent