Baath Arab Socialist Party National Security Bureau “One Arab Nation Bearing an Eternal Message.” Confidential - Urgent
To Comrade Secretary of the Baath Party in the Governorates of Hama, Rif Dimashq, Deir Al Zour, Homs, Idlib, Daraa
Greetings: In its meeting in Damascus on Friday August 5, 2011, the Central Crisis Management Cell discussed the serious consequences of a lax response to the current crisis, allowing armed gangs to continue looting, plundering, killing, and intimidating citizens. Therefore, you are requested to: organize daily joint security-military patrols…to raid the hiding places of those wanted for vandalism, murder, and assault against citizens, private property, and government departments. Apprehend these persons, particularly those inciting people to demonstrate, financiers of demonstrators, members of coordination committees who organize demonstrations, agents who communicate with persons abroad to perpetuate the protests, and those who tarnish the image of Syria in foreign media and international organizations.
So began the Syrian regime’s war on journalists. The fax, signed “Comrade Head of the National Security Bureau,” was obtained by lawyers acting for the family of Marie Colvin, the American journalist killed by artillery fire in Homs in February 2012. They say they have documents and witness testimony proving her death was not accidental, but part of a quite cold, deliberate and premeditated plan by the regime to murder journalists, both foreign and Syrian.
It’s true the fax talks only about “apprehending” demonstrators, activists and journalists, but the Colvin family’s lawyers say that, as the regime became more desperate, the orders evolved. “Apprehend” became “kill.” And this is a conspiracy, it is claimed, that goes right to the top. The “Central Crisis Management Cell,” which issued the fax above, was President Bashar al-Assad’s war cabinet. Among the members was his brother, Maher, who commanded the Republican Guard and the elite 4th Armored Division. The CMCC also included President’ Assad’s trusted intelligence chief, Ali Mamluk, and the Deputy Defense Minister, Assef Shawkat, who was far more important and powerful than his title would suggest.
In January, 2012, Mamluk and Shawkat had talks with a group of monitors from the Arab League. By this time, the uprising in the streets had become an armed insurgency. One of its main strongholds was the suburb of Babr Amr in Homs. However tiny, it was perhaps the only piece of territory that the rebels of the Free Syrian Army could truly call their own. According to the evidence obtained by the Colvin family’s lawyers, Shawkat told the Arab League monitors that the media were his main obstacle to regaining control there. He could destroy Baba Amr in ten minutes, he said, if there were no cameras. The Baath regime was perhaps looking to its history. In 1982, President Assad’s father had destroyed the city of Hama in a rain of artillery fire. Some 10,000-20,000 people died there – there is no accurate estimate even today – but not one single image of the carnage was published. The regime feared that, in the age of the cameraphone and YouTube, they would not be able to accomplish this in Babr Amr.
I first visited Babr Amr in November of 2011. We – a TV crew consisting of me, a cameraman, medic and translator – were taken across the border from Lebanon by smugglers loyal to the rebels. We already knew that the regime was trying to arrest foreign journalists, though at that stage we believed this was to obtain intelligence about the democracy activists the foreign journalist were meeting. One activist told me a network had been exposed when a foreign reporter was captured and his phone emptied of its contacts. Another activist told me about a female correspondent from abroad who was arrested and beaten for a month. Her captors urinated on her after each beating, my contact said. We conceived of this as an undercover trip, therefore, and were extremely wary. “Beware of regime spies,” was the parting advice of smuggler as he bade us farewell and went back to Lebanon.
Paranoia about spies went both ways – at least if you believed the official version of what the regime was thinking. After my piece from Babr Amr was broadcast, a Syrian TV channel loyal to the government called me an Israeli spy. The report said that hand gestures during my piece to camera were secret signals to Mossad in Tel Aviv. This was the kind of thing that state or state-sponsored media made up all the time. The crowning achievement of this propaganda was a story that the forward three of Barcelona’s world famous football team were using different patterns of dribbling to tell the rebels the best routes to smuggle weapons in Syrian. I often wondered if anyone at all in Syria – whether regime loyalists or rebels – believed this nonsense. The regime presumably feared that stories by foreign journalists would bring about a Western military intervention, as in Libya. It was, as the Colvin family’s lawsuit points out, a constant regime theme that foreign reporters were intelligence agents working for the United States and Israel. This, of course, would remove our status as non-combatants in the regime’s eyes.
President Assad’s forces had begun their attack on Babr Amr when we returned months later, on February 5th 2012. Between us, our team had seen some two dozen wars, but this shelling was the worst we had ever experienced. At first, the residents of Babr Amr remained calm but after a couple of days of constant explosions, some were driven to panic, their nerves frayed. Others seemed resigned. “God will decide,” a woman told me, clutching her terrified children in the middle of a barrage. “I just pray we can take revenge on Bashar.” The rebels of the Free Syrian Army had only a few rifles against the regime’s artillery. Civilian casualties were heavy. We filmed a seven-year-old girl being shrouded for burial at the makeshift clinic. The man wrapping her in a white sheet said he had also performed the same duty for his neighbor, his cousin, and his son. Babr Amr was the kind of awful story that foreign correspondents will admit they dream about – if they are honest – but we decided to leave.
We were based in the new media center – in reality just an apartment belonging to an activist – but found the shelling was too heavy to go out. I was also worried that our broadcast signal – and that from another satellite phone at the media center – would draw the regime’s fire. We went to put the antennae on an empty building but found the shelling was too intense to get onto the roof. We could also hear heavy machine guns from tanks that were drawing closer. A ground invasion was at hand, we thought, and if the regime’s soldiers started going house to house, at the very least we would be captured. Such calculations led us to leave Babr Amr after only a few days there.
I saw Marie when we got back to Beirut. The celebrated correspondent for The Sunday Times in London, she was brave, driven, gifted, admired by her peers. All the things said about Marie were true. It did not surprise me when she said that, despite my warnings about the difficulties of working in Babr Amr, she said she was going in. She had a photographer with her, Paul Conroy. He spoke to me about Marie later. “To say she had no fear is not true. We all have fear but it’s how you overcome that fear. You couldn’t put her down. I met her in Iraq, the last invasion. Everyone was waiting for some permission from the Syrians to cross into Iraq; everyone just sitting around. The first time I ever saw Marie she just walked into this room and she went, ‘My god, they’re drugging the journalists here. Don’t drink the tea.’”
Marie’s dispatch from Babr Amr – “The widow's basment” – was brilliant: beautifully written, angry, and anguished, vivid and moving. She left after filing it but felt guilty for going to safety while such terrible things were happening to the people of Babr Amr. And then on her way back to Lebanon she saw that a group of European journalists were heading in and would have the story to themselves. After an intense discussion with her photographer, Paul Conroy, she decided to return. “I tried to talk Marie round,” Paul told me from his hospital bed in London a few weeks later. “She does not give up easily, never has. It’s like talking to a bulldog. She wanted that story. I made every effort to point out the military situation. We were in danger. At that point a couple of other journalists showed up and that really sealed it. Marie would not walk out of a situation like that. She wouldn’t leave the story.”
The Syrian regime was become increasingly alarmed about the foreign reporters reaching Babr Amr. According to the documents and testimony accumulated by the Colvin family lawyers, in January and February of 2012, Lebanese intelligence passed details to the Syrians of the foreign journalists crossing the border – reporters from CNN, the BBC, and The Sunday Times. General Mamluk, the regime’s intelligence director, is said to have ordered Brigadier General Rafiq Shahadah, chief of the Homs Military-Security Committee, to track down the foreign journalists using electronic surveillance and informants. The lawsuit says that General Shahadah ordered his forces to intensify shelling of suspected smuggler’s routes in an attempt to kill the journalists. This is the first time, it is alleged, that a direct order to kill foreign journalists was made.
Almost as soon as they arrived back in Babr Amr a second time, Marie Colvin and Paul Conroy knew they had to try to escape. They feared they might not survive another day of the intense artillery attacks. Marie broadcast live Skype interviews on the BBC, Channel Four, and CNN. She told the BBC that Assad’s forces were “shelling with impunity, with merciless disregard for civilians”. She told CNN it was “a complete and utter lie that they’re only going after terrorists…The Syrian Army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.” But according to the Colvin family lawyers, the satellite phone signal from these interviews was located by Syrian Military Intelligence. That same night, the lawsuit says, a female informant inside Baba Amr contacted a leader of the regime’s shabiha militia in Homs -- she confirmed the media center’s position using aerial footage and maps. With Marie Colvin’s precise location now known, General Shahadah prepared to launch an artillery attack.
On the morning of February 22, 2012, Marie and Paul were packing their gear to leave Baba Amr when a salvo of mortar and rocket fire hit the media center. Marie and a French journalist, Remi Ochlik, were killed. Paul was injured, a fist-sized shrapnel wound in his thigh. “I just felt an almighty pressure in the leg. It wasn’t pain; it was more just this huge pressure. I realized I was losing a lot of blood. I thought I’d better check the wound. I put my hand down; it just popped out the other side of the leg. It had gone straight through. I realized at that point it was quite serious.”
He made a tourniquet out of a computer cable and dragged himself to his feet. “I saw the way out. My leg was not functioning very well. I tripped. I fell next to a body. It took me a few seconds to, to recognize Marie’s jumper and jeans. She had been partially covered in rubble. The only, only thing I could think of: check, check. So I put my hand on her chest to confirm that she was dead. Marie had gone. She wouldn’t have felt a thing. She wouldn’t [even] have heard the bang. Immediately, they started shelling again.”
Paul had served in an artillery regiment in the British Army – he knew that the way the incoming rounds were “bracketed” on the media center meant they were the target. “As an artilleryman, I think that was a good day’s work for a for a well trained team. Nothing smacked or randomness in that situation.” The Colvin family have no doubt that this was an assassination, ordered by the highest levels of the Syrian regime. One of those who organized the attack – the Shabiha commander in Homs -- was given a reward by the Assad family, it’s claimed, a black luxury saloon car. The Syrian government will probably refuse to contest the Colvin family’s lawsuit – and if so the court will not get the chance to examine its claims. The murder of journalists is just one war crime among many the regime stands accused of – this lawsuit is a reminder of that as some argue to rehabilitate President Assad, the alternative to ISIS.