By Javier Sethness
Originally published on Notes Toward an International Libertarian Eco-Socialism
On Thursday, January 31, a U.S. judge found the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad responsible for the targeted assassination of U.S. journalist Marie Colvin in Homs in 2012. A reporter for The Sunday Times, Colvin had been covering the regime’s besiegement of the Baba Amr district of Homs, whose population had rebelled against Assad’s rule as part of the Revolution which had begun in the southern city of Der’aa in March 2011. Though evacuated with other internationals and journalists within days of her arrival as a precautionary measure in light of a threatened regime offensive, Colvin returned with the French photojournalist Rémi Ochlik and British photographer Paul Conroy to the improvised community media center from where they had been reporting. As Conroy describes, he, Colvin, and Ochlik believed that, by reporting on the regime’s besiegement of Baba Amr, they could affect world opinion and bring relief to civilians under fire. It was from Baba Amr that Colvin courageously went live on CNN, the BBC, ITN News, and Channel 4 News, on February 21, 2012, to belie the Assad regime’s fabrications that its assault on the district was exclusively targeting so-called “terrorists.” It was for this reason that the regime killed her, the very next morning after the broadcast. They triangulated her location via her cell signal due to Colvin’s bravery in broadcasting the devastating truth to the world, murdering her and Ochlik in a targeted artillery strike. As judge Amy Jackson observes in her ruling, Colvin was “specifically targeted because of her profession, for the purpose of silencing those reporting on the growing opposition movement in the country.”
Colvin’s remarkable story is told in two recent films: Under the Wire and A Private War. I will not here be discussing Under the Wire, which is brilliantly reviewed by Muhammad Idrees Ahmad in the New York Review of Books here. Instead, I will offer some comments about A Private War, a 2018 dramatization of Colvin’s life, directed by Matthew Heineman and written by Marie Brenner and Arash Amel.
Though Colvin covered armed conflicts for three decades, in A Private War, we follow her in her later assignments to war zones in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. It is amidst covering Sri Lanka’s civil war that Colvin suffers a disfiguring injury, leading her to wear a distinctive eye-patch over her left orbit. While there is little sense in the film that Colvin had an anti-imperialist critique of U.S. participation in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the film depicts her dynamic and increasingly humanist approach to journalism, culminating in her martyrdom in Homs in February 2012. During the Libya segment, which takes place shortly after the outbreak of protests against Mua’mmar al-Qaddafi, we see Colvin outright interviewing the autocrat. Though Colvin never had the chance to question Assad—she was no Vanessa Beeley, a neo-fascist propagandist, but rather the Syrian despot’s direct victim—we get the sense that the writers and director are here channeling Assad’s specter through Colvin’s interaction with Qaddafi, given their similarities, from political authoritarianism to inter-personal repulsiveness and sexism, and their common opportunistic use of nationalist, ‘socialist,’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric to legitimize their crimes. It follows logically that both Qaddafi and Assad would present essentially all opposition to their rule as “al-Qaeda” and/or “terrorists,” as they have.
These myriad problematic and questionable characteristics notwithstanding, and regardless of prior close collaboration on the part of both Assad and Qaddafi with imperialism—including intelligence-sharing and the torture of “suspects of interests” to the U.S.—both figures have enjoyed considerable support from “left” pseudo-anti-imperialists, campists, and neo-Stalinists since the Arab uprisings challenged their rule, beginning in 2011. These Stalinist-campists go so far as to praise Assad and his allies for preventing the collapse of his regime, thus avoiding the “Libya model.” Among other claims, they often argue that the chaos resulting from Qaddafi’s overthrow and murder led to the creation of slave markets for Black Africans: and while we certainly should not deny the spread of conditions of slavery after Qaddafi’s fall, neither should we overlook the widespread pre-existing slave markets enabled by the dictator’s racist regime or the mass-detention system for African migrants traversing Libya en route to Europe, a project for which Qaddafi was compensated billions by the European Union. The autocrat knowingly played on neo-colonial and white-supremacist anxieties, promising that he would ‘protect’ Europe from the putative “risk of turning black from illegal immigration,” and even “turn[ing] into Africa [sic].”1
In an ultimately suicidal conciliatory gesture, Qaddafi abandoned his chemical-weapons programs just months after the invasion of Iraq—though it was not until late 2016 that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed the destruction of the last of Libya’s chemical-weapons stockpile. This is to say nothing of the extraction contracts he negotiated with Western energy corporations after the U.S. government subsequently lifted sanctions against his regime in 2004. By the time of his fall in late 2011, ConocoPhillips and Marathon had invested close to $1.5 billion in the country, whereas Hess and Occidental corporations had bought “rights” to several oil fields, such that, by 2008, the labor appropriated by U.S. companies paradoxically accounted for close to one-third of daily oil production in Libya.
Whereas Qaddafi’s regime was defeated through the combination of a popular rebellion aided by NATO intervention and his person summarily executed, Assad’s tyranny still reigns—unfortunately for Syrians, the region, and the world. Indeed, Qaddafi’s fate has signaled to Assad and Kim Jong-Un not to give up their weapons of mass destruction, despite the terms of the Syrian regime’s fraudulent disarmament overseen by the OPCW a year after the August 2013 Ghouta sarin massacre which killed over one thousand Syrians. In Assad’s case, Qaddafi’s destiny no doubt has influenced the Syrian tyrant not to hesitate to use chemical weapons for tactical advantage, or the sheer purpose of terror and collective punishment of civilian populations who reject his rule.
The film’s concluding chapter in Syria is very moving. The scene is Homs, Syria’s third-largest city by population, following Aleppo and Damascus. After having repudiated Assad’s oppressiveness as the Syrian Revolution spread in early 2011, the people of Homs together with Free Syrian Army units liberated the western district of Baba Amr from regime control. It was here that Colvin arrived with her colleagues in February 2012 during a retaliatory regime offensive on Baba Amr. There, Colvin bore witness to many tragic scenes, including the acute bereavement of a father whose son, being no older than three or four years of age, is killed in the assault. She is also also depicted interviewing a young mother taking refuge with her infant daughter in the “widows’ basement,” under fire from the regime’s ill-named Republican Guard. Colvin’s final tweet reads:
“In Baba Amr. Sickening, cannot understand how the world can stand by & I should be hardened by now. Watched a baby die today. Shrapnel, doctors could do nothing. His little tummy just heaved and heaved until he stopped. Feeling helpless. As well as cold!”
As Rohini Hensman points out correctly in Indefensible (2018), there is no moral difference between this oppressed Syrian mother and a similarly brutalized Palestinian woman who is besieged by Israel.2 Neither is there is a morally relevant difference between this suffering Syrian child, and a suffering Palestinian child. Therefore, these scenes in the film serve a very critical function in allowing for the possibility that the audience will recognize the confused thinking which many Western pseudo-anti-imperialists advance: namely, that Israel’s oppression of Palestinians is horrific and must be ended immediately, but that Assad’s subjugation of Syrians is less problematic, because his regime is supposedly ‘anti-imperialist’ in orientation. For viewers who are not enmeshed in such ideological thinking, these scenes will likely speak to them on a humanist level, and therefore may serve the progressive function of illuminating the Assad regime’s brutality—a necessary prerequisite for demanding justice for the dictator’s vast crimes.
The cries of the bereaved father whom Colvin encounters—”!یا الله,” Ya Allah! (meaning “Oh God”)—recall the young Karl Marx’s critique of religious suffering as the “expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.”3 In thusly calling on Allah—who in Islam is believed to represent the qualities of mercy, peace, justice, love, and equity, among others—this Syrian man critiques Assad’s blasphemous violation of these ideal human qualities, as well as the international order’s complicity in the destruction of the country by the regime and his allies.
Watching A Private War, one may feel a great sense of gratitude and respect for those who risk their lives to report on atrocities from conflict zones, so that the world at least knows about war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the atrocious reprisals to which dissidents and their perceived supporters are subjected by fascist regimes, simply for the “crime” of organizing to overthrow dictatorship and oppression. In light of the fate of Syria over the past nearly eight years, and thinking of the fierce discursive struggle regarding happenings there, especially that advanced by “left” conspiracist thinkers who deny Assad’s crimes, it is unclear that mere coverage of the horrors of war will ensure justice or accountability. Moreover, amidst the mass-extermination experienced in Syria since 2011, it would appear that, to focus on the fate of one person—much less a white Westerner—would seem questionable. Yet the regime has murdered numerous international people of conscience, besides Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik: the anarchist Omar Aziz, who inspired the revolutionary model of the Local Coordinating Councils (LCC’s); Dr. Abbas Khan, a British orthopedic surgeon killed in a Damascus prison in late 2013 for volunteering to assist injured Syrian civilians; and the young Syrian-American Leila Shweikani, whom the regime assassinated in late 2016 for rendering aid to civilians in a hospital in Eastern Ghouta—to name just a few.
So the universal can arguably be seen in the particular: that is to say, one can find an illumination of the essential authoritarianism and injustice of capitalism and dictatorship reflected in the contemplation of several individual cases, whether they be martyred U.S. or French journalists, Syrian or Palestinian civilians, or international aid workers.
Following the recent devastation caused by Storm Norma in the Levant, we see that Syrian refugees and internally displaced people are still very much at risk, both in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria proper. The lives of infants and young children are threatened; many have perished due to storm conditions near Deir-Ez-Zor. Amidst the recent moves made to rehabilitate the Assad Regime on a regional level—given the reopening in late December of Bahrain and UAE’s embassies in Damascus, Jordan’s invitation for the Syrian regime to attend the Inter-Arab Parliamentary Union meeting in March, and the Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir’s recent in-person meeting with Assad in Damascus, which took place just days before the start of the ongoing uprising in Sudan—taken together with the regime’s consolidation of territorial control, there is a definite need for accountability and political resistance to such atrocities. To help alleviate suffering, in the U.S., within the electoral sphere, we can advocate for the implementation of the “Caesar” bill—so named for the Syrian army defector who provided systematic photographic evidence of the mass-extermination of detainees held by regime forces—and for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, at least, we can help support the fundraiser for Med Global, which is providing emergency shelter and other life-saving treatments across the border in Lebanon.
“No justice without accountability.”
1 Emphasis added.
2 Rohini Hensman, Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018), 284.
3 Emphasis in original.