Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, July 13th, 2016
Marie Colvin’s Death Was Tragic, But It Was Random
By an Informed Observer in Damascus
For Syria Comment, June 13, 2016
Marie Colvin’s death was tragic, especially for her family and friends and the international media community. Colvin was a courageous and legendary journalist. But her death was random, like hundreds of thousands of other deaths in the Syrian war that the world does not hear about. She was not “assassinated,” as claimed in the lawsuit submitted by her relatives or emphasized in news headlines, such as this Washington Post article: War reporter Marie Colvin was tracked, targeted and killed by Assad’s forces, family says.
Colvin was embedded with the media wing of an insurgency in an active war zone. She was not targeted by Syrian government forces any more than the French journalist Gilles Jacquier was when he was killed by insurgent retaliatory mortars fired from the Old Homs neighborhood they controlled at the majority Alawite neighborhood of Akrama, in January 2011. A lot of people die in wars, most are not directly targeted as individuals. Most local journalists and western journalists are also not targeted. The US military has accidentally killed journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan, they were usually Arab so few of us know their names. But they too were not targeted. Those few from the brave and reckless pack of international journalists who dare to venture into war zones do the world a great service, but they volunteer to leave a world of safety and laws to enter chaos and risk death. They do so believing the mission is worth the risk, and we owe them a debt to be sure, but when they get killed it should not shock us for they have entered a world that their typically privileged audience does not know, where death is random, merciless, fickle and ubiquitous.
There is no doubt that Colvin was killed by artillery fired by the Syrian armed forces. Apart from that basic fact, the legal complaint submitted reads as if it was written by a Syrian opposition activist and contains many factual errors. The shells that killed her and French photographer Remi Ochlik were fired from the Hassan ibn al Haitham military base in Homs’ Tadmur Circle, quite a distance away, and with a range of error of fifty meters. It was not a sniper rifle. The artillery was fired at Baba Amr, a large Homs suburb seized by insurgents who were attempting to penetrate government held areas in the city itself such as Inshaat. Government forces had launched an offensive to retake the neighborhood after the previous battles had ended in late 2011 with insurgents remaining in the neighborhood.
The complaint recounts a naive narrative about the birth of the insurgency, claiming that “in response, defectors from the Syrian army joined with local volunteers to defend opposition neighborhoods from attack. In November 2011, a group of officers who had defected from the Syrian army entered Baba Amr, a district in southwest Homs. They announced the formation of the al-Farouq Battalion, a rebel group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, a national network of moderate, pro-democracy rebels (“FSA rebels”). Composed of several hundred army deserters and volunteers, equipped only with small arms, the FSA rebels launched raids against government checkpoints in Baba Amr.”
In fact the overwhelming majority of insurgents from March 2011 were not defectors from the military but angry civilians. Especially in Homs city former criminals and low level street gangsters played a key role in the formation of insurgent groups and became local defenders. Much like the so called shabiha in fact. The Farouq Battalion described in the complaint was not a moderate pro-democracy faction. it was led and financed by salafis, its ideology was Islamist and it engaged from the beginning in attacks against civilians perceived to be loyal to the state and kidnappings of Alawites in particular. The complaint is correct that “In late November 2011, the FSA rebels expelled Assad regime forces from Baba Amr, established a defensive perimeter around the neighborhood, and declared it a “liberated zone.”” But then it should be no surprise that the Syrian state would not tolerate this and would have to take military action to retake this zone. The insurgents took an entire neighborhood hostage, and later much of the country, without prior invitation by locals. These insurgents received funding from state and non-state actors throughout the Middle East and especially the Gulf and were backed by businessmen affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. They laid waste to institutions and infrastructure, as does any insurgency, and displaced all who have differing views or were from other sects. They also displayed callous disregard for the predictable consequences their strongholds would face when the Syrian security forces responded.
See original Map of Homs here
While the Syrian armed forces do use indiscriminate force when targeting insurgent held areas, they are indeed insurgent held areas and their conduct is not inconsistent with how other states respond to insurgencies. Baba Amr was full of insurgents threatening to penetrate the city and destroy the state. It is no surprise that the state would use all its force to prevent this. This is why it was placed under siege. Syrian forces surrounded Baba Amr in order to deny the insurgents the ability to seize the rest of Homs city.
The complaint claims that “Syrian military and intelligence forces launched a scorched-earth campaign against Baba Amr.” In true Syrian style it was not a surgical operation and no doubt the laws of war were violated and violence was used indiscriminately without the proper concern for civilian collateral damage. But less than 20 percent of Baba Amr was badly damaged and today the neighborhood is overwhelmingly intact. Compared to operations that would come in the following years of the civil war the use of violence in the Baba Amr campaign was consistent with western standards, if not as efficient.
Contrary to the complaint, Maher al Assad was not involved in the Baba Amr operations at all. But in November 2011 a brigade of “BMP” armored personnel carriers trained in urban combat was sent by the 4th Division to Homs and placed under the command of the 18th Division which only had tanks that were unwieldy for urban combat. But even these APCs had not belonged to Maher’s liwa, which was liwa 47. Maher al Assad does not command the 4th division, contrary to popular belief. The APC’s belonged to Jamal Sleiman’s liwa.
The Syrian government’s capabilities pinpointing locations based on communication were always very weak, especially in those early days of the war. At best they could locate a neighborhood where the communication was taking place. And they were overwhelmed with mobile phones and satellite communication taking place in insurgent held areas so their primitive tracking abilities were even less effective. The complaint claims that “the Computer and Signals Section of Branch 261 of the Syrian Military Intelligence Directorate informed General Shahadah that the informant’s account matched the location of broadcast signals they had intercepted earlier that night.” But in 2012 the most advance device in Branch 261 of the Syrian Military Intelligence Directorate was a Chinese radio and it did not have the ability to analyze intercepted signals and determine a location. Branch 225 in Damascus did have those capabilities but at the time they were not mobile and only available in Damascus. It would be over a year before the Syrian government obtained mobile devices that could help identify the location of communications. Even then, we’re not talking about very sophisticated capabilities.
In early 2012 more and more of Homs was falling to insurgents. A regime which had little regard for international media was too busy struggling to survive and responding to a burgeoning insurgency to hunt down a small team of westerners. The regime was much more concerned about Syrians. It was struggling to win the domestic battle and root out activists working with the insurgents. They were a far greater priority for it than westerners. And indeed when it captured them, depending on the location and the time, they were often treated brutally. Westerners were largely immune to such treatment.
The “shabiha” were not a paramilitary death squad. Shabiha was a colloquial name to describe a pre-war phenomenon of organized crime with connections to the regime. Once the uprising began the name was used to describe any government supporter but also more specifically to describe a parallel phenomenon that emerged alongside the nascent insurgency of loyalist civilians organizing themselves as self defense (in their minds) committees that also engaged in attacks on the opposition with loose cover from government security forces. These would eventually become organized into a handful of official paramilitary forces such as the National Defense Forces. It is wrong to view them as death squads. And they were not under the command of Maher al Assad. Instead, once they gradually became organized various groups were affiliated with various security agencies and army units depending on the area and who had jurisdiction.
Moreover Khaled al Fares, the individual described in the complaint as “a shabiha militia leader” was nothing of the sort. Khaled al Fares was a businessman with a shady past in semi legal or illegal activities who gradually became a legitimate businessman with interests in car dealerships, chicken coups, a marble factory, and money lending. He was also close to Asef Shawkat, brother in law of the president, a former intelligence chief and at the time deputy minister of defense. Al Fares was not affiliated with Maher al Assad in any way at the time. Al Fares was part of an informal committee of influential Homs citizens, Alawis and Sunnis, loyalists and opposition, who gathered at the Safir Hotel with government officials occasionally to try to mediate and prevent the city from collapsing into civil war. Because he had a tribal background he was a useful asset for the government in reaching out to various constituencies. Not only was he not a militia commander, al Fares (who lived in the upper class Inshaat neighborhood at the time) only had a couple of bodyguards and 4 AK-47s to his name.
Al Fares did play a small role in this story, but not as an informant to help kill Colvin. When the death of Colvin was announced, the Syrian government did not believe it at first. One of their sources had falsely told Syrian intelligence that she and her colleagues had snuck out using tunnels to the western Homs country by Qatini Lake and that the death announcement was a tactic to deceive the government and allow Colvin to flee. Then an old man living in Baba Amr came to the Safir and met with security officials. The old man was originally from Wadi Khaled and his son was a member of an insurgent group in Baba Amr. He wanted to safely evacuate his son from Baba Amr and was also hoping for financial compensation in exchange for revealing to the government that the bodies of Colvin and Ochlik were buried in his back yard. He also informed the security officials that the insurgents were gathering at the edge of Baba Amr to prepare to evacuate to Quseir in western Homs. Khaled al Fares overheard this and told Asef Shawkat. Some in the government wanted to ambush the insurgents before they fled while others wanted to recover the bodies. Asef claimed he had told an EU official that he could get the bodies. Al Fares claimed that he took part in the operation to recover the bodies while in fact it was a team of low ranking security men who snuck in on a cold and snowy night and recovered the wrapped up corpses. They were surprised to find that insurgents had largely abandoned Baba Amr. When the bodies were taken to the Political Security branch Khaled al Fares took his picture with them.
Senior Syrian officials at the time claimed they had tried to mediate with the western journalists before the offensive was launched, going through local and international organizations and offering safe passage out to Lebanon. Security officials were also in touch with local insurgents about this. They worried about the consequences should westerners be harmed in their offensive. They claim Colvin was adamant on staying or made demands such as evacuating wounded insurgents. Syrian security chiefs surely wanted to detain and expel foreign journalists who had entered Syria illegally to report and at least in their view promote an insurgency, but they did not want to kill them, even in Syria western lives have more value than those of locals.
The complaint states that “Colvin and Conroy feared that it would be unsafe to embed with the Syrian government on an official press tour.” This is silly. While Colvin and Conroy were providing a necessary and valuable service informing the world about the suffering in insurgent held areas, it is absurd to think it is more safe to embed with insurgents than to go on a state sanctioned visit. The complaint claims that “two Swiss journalists who were with Jacquier at the time accused the Syrian government of leading Jacquier into an ambush.” This is nonsensical because Jacquier was in a safe majority Alawite neighbourhood with government escorts and streets full of people that suddenly came under insurgent mortar attack.
This is the footage of the moment that Gilles Jacquier was killed along with eight Syrians. It taken by an Arab camera crew and released by Adduniya TV, a pro-government channel.
He had bad luck, just like the others killed that day. But as usual the lives of Syrians wounded or killed are not as important and if a westerner is hurt than surely he must have been targeted. The complaint names a plethora of the most senior officials in Syria as part of a conspiracy to kill these western journalists. This is absurd. These officials were dealing with far more urgent matters than a couple of western journalists.
It is naive and misleading to call Khaled Abu Salah a poet and media activist. One can support his cause but the fact is he was a leading member of the media arm of the insurgency in Homs and his job was to be a propagandist on their behalf. Indeed after Baba Amr was retaken footage was discovered of him and his colleagues fabricating claims and footage to add drama to their media appearances. As Khaled Abu Salah played an important role within the Homs insurgency, but he was less of a poet and “activist” and more the equivalent of one of Hamas’ spokesmen in Gaza. These so called media activists were no doubt passionate and brave but they operated under the permission of insurgent commanders and in support of their armed struggle. Thus embedding with them would naturally expose one to the same retaliation the insurgents could expect.
The complaint claims that a female informant revealed the location of the western journalists. In fact Syrian officials believed the journalists had fled. It was only the old man from Wadi Khaled who revealed to them that they had stayed behind and two were dead. The old man also claimed that insurgents had killed them in order to tarnish the image of the Syrian government. This of course was not true but as a result some government officials wanted to take the bodies for an autopsy in Damascus but they were overruled and the bodies were hastily handed over to the ICRC.