What Can Acronyms Tell Us? Media Coverage and the Limits of Proxy War Analysis in Northeast Syria

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Syrian Kurds march with a banner reading “We do not accept hostility and strangers on our land” during a demonstration against Turkish threats in Ras al-Ain town in Syria’s Hasakeh province near the Turkish border on October 9, 2019. – Syrian Kurds called on Damascus ally Moscow to facilitate “dialogue” with the regime, following threats of a Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria. Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images.

Firat Bozcali
Reflecting on the U.S. troop withdrawal from northern Syria, which facilitated a Turkish incursion into the area and to possible human rights violations against the Kurds, PoLAR editors asked Firat Bozcali, Deniz Duruiz, and Çağrı Yoltar to discuss what is missing from western media coverage of the situation. Other essays may be found on our Ethnographic Explainers page.

First of all, it is worth noting that media coverage of the current situation in Northeast Syria has been colored by various and often conflicting motivations. Almost all of the media outlets based in Turkey depict the situation in line with the Turkish government’s perspective, justifying Turkey’s incursion into Syria. A number of European and North American media outlets provide some independent reporting on the situation despite limited access to the conflict zone. The under-resourced Kurdish media outlets present on-the-ground reporting while being physically targeted and hit by Turkey-backed militias and/or Turkish airstrikes. Media coverage has thus emerged as another battleground for various sides involved in a “war of truth and propaganda.” The use of social media for real-time reporting as well as disinformation has further complicated the situation. In my response, I will focus on Western, mainly North America and West Europe-based, media coverage.

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Fighters and veterans from the Kurdish women’s protection units (YPJ) and the people’s protection units (YPG) march in front of the UN headquarters in the northern Kurdish Syrian city of Qamishli during a protest against Turkish threats in the Kurdish region, on October 8, 2019. – Damascus is ready to welcome Syria’s Kurds back into the fold after Washington left them to face Turkish military threats alone, a senior official said in comments published today. Ankara has threatened an offensive in Syria against Kurdish militias it considers terrorists and US forces on Monday pulled back from Turkish border areas, opening the way for an invasion President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said could come at any moment. Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images.

The main issue that is missed in most Western media coverage of the current situation in Northeast Syria is local political agency and the local political histories that made it possible.  The Syrian Kurdish actors, for example, have been mostly described as “Syrian Kurds,” “the Kurds,” or less frequently “SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces).” In a few pieces, reporters mentioned Syrian Kurdish organizations including the PYD (Democratic Union Party), YPG (People’s Protection Units), or YPJ (Women’s Protection Units), especially when focusing on women fighters or the Northeast Syria Federation. The use of Syrian Kurds/Kurds as a general term to refer to local political actors is not totally incorrect, since the on-the-ground Syrian Kurdish political organizations have achieved a significant level of local support. The avoidance of various acronyms might also be justified for the sake of making the journalistic reports accessible to readers who are not familiar with Middle Eastern and/or Kurdish politics. Admittedly, with events unfolding on an hourly basis, there may not be enough time to elaborate on the political nuances among different local actors. Some reporters might even think that differences among these organizations can be omitted at larger spatial and temporal scales. Yet, the use (or lack) of particular acronyms indexes specific political statements, making some histories and agencies visible and others invisible.

For example, the two locally organized defense units that make up the base of the SDF are the YPG and YPJ. Naming the YPG and YPJ and providing background information on these organizations in reporting would position the SDF and the leading Syrian Kurdish political agency within a specific political trajectory. More importantly, using a dual-acronym, such as YPG-YPJ (or YPJ-YPG, although the YPG was established before the YPJ) would acknowledge women’s political agency, made possible by a long history of struggle in Syria and the wider Kurdish political context. This is not simply a history of common struggle in which Kurdish women happened to join their male comrades in resisting various state powers, but a struggle initiated and furthered by Kurdish women in resisting patriarchy within Kurdish society as well as among their own male comrades.[1] The dual-acronym of YPG-YPJ makes this specific struggle and history visible. There is a particular politics behind the acronyms, in other words. This politics of acronyms also plays a significant role in the war of truth and propaganda, which is marked by a “politics of naming” in which different actors struggle to register and name particular events in different and often contradictory ways.[2]

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Kurdish demonstrators hurl rocks at a Turkish military vehicle on November 8, 2019, during a joint Turkish-Russian patrol near the town of Al-Muabbadah in the northeastern part of Hassakah on the Syrian border with Turkey. Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images.

In Western media coverage, the Syrian Kurdish actors have been mostly depicted as a reliable yet betrayed ally of the US and the US-led coalition against ISIS. Media coverage listed the potential consequences of this betrayal as the massacre of civilians in Northeast Syria, damage to the credibility of US military interventionism, a resuscitation of the disappearing ISIS, and expansion of Russian and Iranian influence in the region, among others. Massacres committed against civilians in Northeast Syria were duly reported—in fact, they have already been normalized, and are barely noticed anymore, except in occasional news reports blaming Turkey-backed militias for human rights violations and “war crimes,” as the US defense secretary once put it. It is debatable whether US military interventionism was credible in the first place. ISIS’s revival is to be expected. And the expansion of Russian and possibly Iranian influence can be understood within a particular geopolitical perspective. Yet, what is missing in the betrayal narrative (and geopolitical perspective) is the political agency of the Northeastern Syrian actors, namely the SDF and its affiliates. This lack of attention to local political agency indicates how mainstream media coverage operates through a state-centric, proxy war analysis. In this proxy war narrative, local political agency and armed groups, or groups that are deemed nonstate actors, are only framed as pawns of established powers, either regional or global state actors. In such coverage, Kurdish political agency exists only as proxies involved in proxy wars between global and/or regional governments. Yet, historically, local political actors can significantly change the course of events, remake political and military coalitions, as well as undermine and reshape the political agendas that intervening regional and/or global powers impose.

The political actors and peoples of Northeast Syria have their own political concerns and agendas that rely on a political history and trajectory beyond global and regional actors’ interventions in Syria. The anti-Jihadist struggle, for example, was not introduced and imposed by the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in Syria. In fact, US interventionism created the political and material conditions in Iraq and Syria for Jihadist organizations, including ISIS, to emerge. With the expectation of a regime overthrow in Syria, the US and its regional allies funded, equipped, and trained Syrian rebels, a significant portion of whom ended up either joining or selling their weapons to Jihadist groups. In this instance, media coverage also mostly missed that ISIS was not the first and only Jihadist group that attacked the peoples of Northeast Syria.

Firat Bozcali is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto. He received his PhD in anthropology from Stanford University. His research interests lie at the intersections of political and legal anthropology, political economy, transnational flows, and science and technology studies with a focus on the modern Middle East. He is currently working on his book manuscript. Based on 20 months of ethnographic fieldwork in the Kurdish borderlands across Turkey and Iran, the book will examine the techno-legal borderwork through which Kurdish smugglers and lawyers challenged and altered the ways in which national borders are enforced.


[1] For the wider context of Kurdish women’s movement, see Çağlayan, Handan, 2020, Women in the Kurdish Movement: Mothers, Comrades, Goddesses. Switzerland: The Palgrave Macmillan.

[2] For Mahmood Mamdani’s conceptualization of “politics of naming” in the context of Save Darfur movement and critiques that he received, see https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v29/n05/mahmood-mamdani/the-politics-of-naming-genocide-civil-war-insurgency




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