The tale of two ladies—Marie Colvin and Asma al-Assad—change Syria
How the journalist’s death has impacted perceptions of Syria’s First Lady
Published: Sunday, May 6, 2012
Updated: Saturday, May 5, 2012 20:05
Either one of them could have been a Wellesley woman. Born and raised in London, one graduated with a degree in Computer Science and worked as an investment banker for J.P. Morgan. She later married a politician, becoming First Lady, and the international press fawned over her style and elegance, calling her a “rose in the desert.” The other, a native New Yorker with a degree in anthropology, turned heads at the London office of The Sunday Times, a British paper, as she became one of the best war correspondents in a field largely dominated by men. Her eye patch, which covered a shrapnel wound from the Sri Lankan Civil War, marked her commitment to old-fashioned, traditional reporting from the front lines and her mission to “speak truth to power.”
You may have guessed their identities already: the first woman is Asma al-Assad and the second Marie Colvin—the Syrian First Lady and the now deceased American journalist, respectively. If Shakespeare were still alive today, these two woman may have supplied him with enough drama and garish contrasts for a play. Both women were glamorous, highly educated and ambitious. Both expressed a great interest in social justice and political reform. And yet, each woman’s response to the recent Syrian uprising has exposed key moral differences.
Throughout the anti-government uprising in Syria, Asma al-Assad maintained a seven-month silence while her husband, President Bashar al-Assad, responded with brute force. After the United Nations (U.N.) failed to pass a resolution due to China and Russia vetoes, the regime escalated its attacks in February. The Syrian army besieged the city of Homs, the rebel stronghold and third largest town of Syria, cutting off water, food and electricity.
The Economist denounced the government’s repression as an “act of butchery.” Finally, on Feb. 7, Asma al-Assad released an e-mail statement to the international media: “[Bashar al-Assad] is the President of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the First Lady supports him in that role.” The email continued: “The First Lady’s very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has long been involved with,” but “she listens to and comforts the families of the victims of the violence.”
Her email used the word “faction” to minimize the significance and legitimacy of the dissenting group. “‘What the government is doing is trying to protect the people,’ Abu Ali said, echoing the Assad government’s propaganda. ‘They are targeting terrorist groups in the area,’” wrote The New York Times in February of this year. The Syrian regime claimed that the army specifically pursues terrorist groups, rather than civilians, in order to prevent al-Qaeda, which seeks to exploit the volatile situation, from producing more chaos.
The word “faction” also highlights that sectarian tensions exist within the country and the potential for spillover. Bashar al-Assad’s regime is composed of the Alawites, a minority offshoot of the Shiites. Places with majority Shiite populations, such as the capital city of Damascus and countries like Iraq, strongly support the regime.
On the other hand, regions with majority Sunni populations, such as the city of Homs, have received the brunt of attacks. The dictator, representing the Shiite minority, plays on fears that a political takeover of Syria by its Sunni majority would lead to the violent oppression of the Shiites and the Christians.
Additionally, Bashar al-Assad’s regime amplifies legitimate fears that the sectarian makeup of Syria could cause a black hole of conflict in the Middle East. Hosyar Zebar, Iraq’s foreign minister, stated, “We are immediate neighbors. It’s like Mexico for the United States. With a change in Syria, everyone fears the spillover.” Indeed, Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly suggested that if neighboring governments allow the Syrian government to fall, they not only undermine the authority of the Syrian government but their own governments as well.
But, on Wednesday, Feb. 22, Colvin countered the government’s propaganda in her last dispatch from the city of Homs. Knowing the risks, she chose to enter the country. From a building housing a rebel press center, she reported, “Every civilian home has been hit,” emphasizing that there were no military targets. It was a “complete and utter lie that they’re going after terrorists.” Other sources, such as BBC and CNN, all corroborated Colvin.
While it’s true that there’s a complicated mixture of networks that are fighting the Syrian government, the “terrorist groups” notion is all state propaganda. The protests of the Syrian uprising, part of the nonviolent and social-media fueled Arab Spring, were strictly peaceful and secular in nature.