Don’t Call it Ethnic Cleansing: Erasing Turkey’s State Terrorism in Syria

Photograph Source: Kurdishstruggle – CC BY 2.0

In the wake of the Syrian ceasefire, predictions of continued humanitarian disaster following a U.S. “withdrawal” are becoming more pronounced. Syrian Democratic Forces commander Mazlum Kobani warns that “there will be ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish people from Syria, and the American administration will be responsible for it.” President Donald Trump, in contrast, celebrated the withdrawal as proof of his opposition to U.S. wars. Republican Senator Rand Paul supports the troop removal from Syria, announcing that “I don’t see what our national interest is in policing the Middle East and nation-building.” But Paul should choose his words more carefully. The “withdrawal” has nothing to do with bringing the troops home. In reality, it is a repositioning of U.S. forces. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper explains “that all of the nearly 1,000 troops withdrawing from northern Syria are expected to move to western Iraq to continue the campaign against Islamic State group militants and to help defend Iraq.”

Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria is a continuation of its longstanding policy of ethnic cleansing against the Kurds. This policy dates back decades, and is pursued in the name of fighting the “terrorism” of Kurdish nationalists who seek an independent Kurdistan. But Turkey’s policies amount to a vicious form of state terrorism and collective punishment against an entire people.

Turkey is a strategic U.S. ally, benefitting from billions in foreign aid over the decades. This strategic value historically meant that Turkey’s human rights atrocities received little attention in official rhetoric, and were even rewarded by continued U.S. aid. U.S. support for ethnic cleansing entered its latest phase with Turkey’s air and ground attacks on Kurdish-populated Syrian border towns, including Kobani, Ras al-Ain, Qamishli, and Tel Abyad. Those attacks intensified over time, as Turkish troops expanded their presence. The ceasefire was accompanied by Turkey’s announcement that it will remain in Syria, opening the door for further ethnic cleansing in the future.

As British reporter Patrick Cockburn warned at the onset of the military campaign, the invasion would likely produce a mass exodus of Kurds, representing “a major act of ethnic cleansing.” Panos Moumtzis, the United Nations’ “regional humanitarian coordinator” for the Syria crisis warned: “we are preparing for the worst, because, indeed, from experience, this could result to a displacement of people. We want to make sure we are ready.” The United Nations estimated a week into Turkey’s offensive that 160,000 Kurds were displaced, “seeking shelter in host communities, collective shelters, and schools.” A total of 250,000 people were forced from their homes, in what one human rights observer called a “catastrophic civilian displacement.” In short, the threat of ethnic cleansing was, and remains quite real.

Despite the devastation and destruction it’s caused, Turkeys’ assault is to a large extent the product of Trump’s own incompetence. Over the last 2 years, Trump repeatedly sought to “bluff” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, goading him by stipulating that Turkey could invade northern Syria, but that it would be responsible for taking over anti-ISIS operations in the region. After repeated bluffs, Erdogan eventually took Trump up on the “offer,” prompting Trump to protest, as he reportedly admonished Erdoğan not to invade northern Syria, while implicitly greenlighting the operation by removing 50 U.S. troops from the region. Those troops had been active on the Syrian border alongside Kurdish forces, serving as a “trip wire” that deterred Turkish attacks in the region.

Trump’s initial removal of the 50 troops was not a withdrawal, since the troops were to be relocated from the north, thereby enabling the Turkish ethnic cleansing campaign. But this plan changed as news broke that Turkey was expanding its military operations, and the Trump administration announced a withdrawal of 700 of its 1,000 troops. This withdrawal was not initially planned; it was forced on the U.S., as American troops were “caught between two opposing advancing armies” – Turkish troops on one side, and Kurdish fighters and Syrian troops on the other. This expulsion from Syria was a deep embarrassment for Trump, who announced economic sanctions against Turkey. As the New York Times reported, Trump demanded “an immediate cease-fire” due to his “concern for the safety of the remaining American troops in Syria.”

In question is how U.S. political rhetoric and media coverage have depicted Turkey’s larger ethnic cleansing efforts and their state terror campaign against the Kurds. To what extent have journalists allowed themselves to be propaganda agents of the state, in terms of fixating on official agendas, and valuing strategic objectives over human rights?

Human rights concerns are not driving U.S. policy. To the contrary, the U.S. has enabled Turkey’s human rights atrocities by stressing strategic interests in the region over humanitarian concerns, and via continued U.S. foreign aid in the midst of an ethnic cleansing campaign. A review of the official reactions to Trump’s repositioning of U.S. troops to allow for the Turkish attack is revealing. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham lamented that “the Trump administration” had “shamelessly abaondoned” our “Kurdish allies,” which “ensures the reemergence of ISIS” moving forward. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stressed the “bipartisan concern about the continuing threat posed by ISIS” to “the longterm American security interests in Syria and the region,” while repeating his “support for a continued military presence in northeastern Syria.” Democratic House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi declared:

“The President’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Northern Syria is a deeply disturbing development that betrays our Kurdish allies who have been instrumental partners in our mission to eradicate ISIS. Despite what the President might say, ISIS remains a serious threat. This reckless, misguided decision undermines the efforts by our brave service members and our allies to end ISIS’s tyranny.”

Criticisms even appeared from within Trump’s administration. As one National Security Council official complained the president was “rolled” and “out-negotiated” in the phone conversation he had with Erdogan prior to the assault, in which Trump failed to make clear to Turkey that there would be consequences to invading Syria in the form of economic sanctions.

What is missing from the official statements above is any declaration of concern regarding the humanitarian consequences of Turkey’s assault in northern Syria. This concern was also absent in Trump’s own message to the American people, as he promised to “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if it “does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits.” In his hundreds of tweets from the time Trump greenlighted the Turkish invasion (October 7th) through the U.S. announcing a “withdrawal” due to U.S. troops getting caught between warring factions (October 14th), Trump tweeted 19 times on Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds. In not a single tweet did he mention “human rights,” “humanitarian” concerns, or “ethnic cleansing” in relation to the Kurds and Trump’s definition of “off limits” behavior on Turkey’s part. To the contrary, Trump celebrated Turkey in an October 8th tweet, despite the looming ethnic cleansing, announcing that “so many people conveniently forget that Turkey is a big trading partner of the United States” due to its contributions to “our F-35 Fighter Jet.”

While human rights rhetoric was absent from Trump’s twitter feed, strategic thinking was not. A total of 8 of Trump’s 19 tweets on Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds from October 7th through 14th were devoted to strategic comments, related to Turkey’s importance as a trading partner, and discussing terrorism and ISIS in Syria. Trump did finally tweet to express concern for Turkey’s repression of the Kurds on October 14th, a week after greenlighting Turkey’s ethnic cleansing. This fleeting lip service to human rights, however, was almost immediately nullified by Trump’s callous declaration two days later that the Kurds were “not angels” and by his absurdist claim that the Kurds were “much safer now” in the midst of the ethnic cleansing. Trump also betrayed any human rights concerns after the declaration of a ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurds, as he flippantly compared the conflict to a schoolyard fight between “two kids,” in which he showed “tough love.”

While U.S. official concerns in Syria are strategically driven, how have the media responded to these concerns? The evidence so far isn’t good, at least for those who recognize the dangers of state criminality and ethnic cleansing. The New York Times’ October 7th editorial concluded that the removal of U.S. troops from the border “may destroy any trust the Kurds, America’s crucial partner in Syria, had left. It could threaten the fight against ISIS.” Emphasizing concerns about terrorism, the Times wrote that “if Kurds in Syria have to defend themselves against the Turks, they are likely to shift their forces from the fight against ISIS, including the guarding of about 10,000 ISIS prisoners now in Kurdish detention centers.”

A Washington Post editorial from the same day refererred to Trump’s repositioning of troops as a strategic “blunder”: “The Turkish objective is to evict the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led group that has been an invaluable U.S. partner in fighting the Islamic State.” The Post warned:

“Kurdish-led forces could quickly abandon any further effort to control the Islamic State. They might well set free the tens of thousands of former militants and family members held in SDF-controlled camps. The 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria could be forced to withdraw entirely, which would be a major victory for Russia and open the way for Iran to entrench its forces along Israel’s northern border.”

In neither of these editorials was there a reference to human rights, humanitarian concerns, ethnic cleansing, Turkish state crimes, or Turkish state terrorism. The media focus was monolithically geopolitical. These papers were concerned with the “War on Terrorism,” and believed that Trump committed a “blunder” that opened the doors for an ISIS resurgence. The discussion of ISIS and radical terrorism is important, considering the brutal, fundamentalist threat ISIS represents. But the complete omission of human rights concerns reveals how little American leaders care about the lives of those devastated by the criminal actions of an ally. The Trump administration has sought to downplay such concerns, with its “America first” rhetoric, which disingenuously promises a withdrawal from U.S. wars. But the President merely moved troops to Iraq, thereby enabling Turkish state terrorism.

The above trends speak volumes about the concerns driving the editors of the New York Times and Washington Post. But what about broader media trends? To better generalize, I utilized the Nexis Uni news archive, reviewing all the reporting and commentary from major U.S. print, cable television, online, and newswire venues that discussed “Syria” and Turkey” in the week following Trump’s announced repositioning of U.S. troops. In total, this included 2,081 articles and television segments. Like U.S. leaders, the news media systematically echoed and prioritized official strategic concerns, while downplaying humanitarian ones. I document the percent of all content from each venue that referenced “terror(ism),” “ISIS” or the “Islamic State” on the one hand, and “human rights,” “humanitarian issues,” and “ethnic cleansing” on the other. [1]

We see a stark privileging of strategic concerns, and a marginalization of human rights. At the least extreme, we see that discussions of terrorism were privileged between two-and-a-half to three times as often, compared to human rights, in the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and the Associated Press. The most extreme cases were MSNBC and Fox News, which privileged terrorism between four-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half times as often as human rights. But in all of these venues, there was an extreme imbalance between terrorism and human rights-related coverage.

Turkey’s Invasion of Syria (10/7-10/13/2019)

(% of stories in which each frame appears)

New York Times (147 articles)

Terrorism/ISIS: 88%

Human Rights/Ethnic Cleansing: 29%

Washington Post (149 articles)

Terrorism: 92%

Human Rights: 36%

Fox News (24 segments)

Terrorism: 96%

Human Rights; 21%

MSNBC (29 segments)

Terrorism: 86%

Human Rights: 10%

CNN (464 segments)

Terrorism: 89%

Human Rights: 30%

Associated Press (1,268 articles)

Terrorism: 76%

Human Rights: 29%

Trump has been bitterly attacked over the last few weeks by Republicans and Democrats in Congress. But however the battle between Turkey and the U.S. plays out moving forward, recent events suggest there is little concern on the U.S. side of this fight for the humanitarian consequences of Turkey’s actions. The media have covered for Trump’s enabling of Turkey’s atrocities by downplaying the humanitarian consequences, and elevating the discussion of U.S. strategic interests in Syria. This emphasis on strategy means the suppression of discusions of Kurdish state terrorism and ethnic cleansing. And it means Turkey will be enabled in future attacks on the Kurds, which are likely to receive little attention in U.S. political and media discourse.


[1] In analyzing newsprint content, and for the “terrorism” framework, I included any article or segment referencing “Syria” and “Turkey” while also referencing concerns with “terror/terrorism,” “ISIS,” or the “Islamic State.” The “human rights” framework included all articles referencing “human rights,” “humanitarian” concerns, or “ethnic cleansing.” For analyzing cable news programs, I included any program that referenced “Syria” and “Turkey,” while including a discussion of the “Kurd(s)” or “Kurdish” peoples within 100 words of references to “terror/terrorism,” “ISIS,” or the “Islamic State,” and within 100 words of references to “human rights,” “humanitarian concerns,” or “ethnic cleansing.”

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.