As Syria continues its slide into civil war, President Bashar al-Assad has enlisted civilian armed militias known as “Shabiha” to help protect his regime.
According to reports, no assignment is too brutal or bloody for these gangs of murderous thugs who have been blamed for the recent Houla massacre where over 100 people, half of them children, were killed.
“They were like monsters.” Dr. Mousab Azzawi who had a clinic in Latakia in the heartland of the Shahiba militia, told the Daily Telegraph.
“I had to talk to them like children, because the Shabiha like people with low intelligence. But that is what makes them so terrifying-the combination of brute strength and blind allegiance to the regime,” he said.
The world was horrified when images and details of the massacre in Houla came out. Even China and Russia, allies of the regime in Damascus, agreed to a U.N. Security Council statement condemning the killings, although without pointing the finger of blame at anyone. Peace envoy Kofi Annan, spoke of a “turning point” while French President François Hollande promptly called for a military intervention.
The ruthlessness of the Shabiha has recently become clear to the world, but to Syrians their brutality has been well known for long.
“Even before the revolution, any time there was unrest they would go out into the streets and stop it for the government,” said Selma, who comes from a prominent Alawite family – a Shiite Muslim sect, into which the Assad family was born, and to which almost all of the Shabiha belong.
Her cousins are members of the Shabiha.
“They would just break people’s arms and legs. They would fight for Bashar to the death. It is natural – they have to defend their sect,” Selma told the Telegraph.
Her cousins wore civilian clothes, she said – “then the television can say that these are just civilians who love Bashar.”
One survivor of the Houla massacre said he knew it was Shabiha men on a rampage and not the army because they were wearing white trainers instead of black military boots. The white shoes have become an alarming sight for Syrians, who fear the lawless militia almost more than the military.
Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez before him, used the Shabiha to force Syrians into obedience, brainwashing the militia into believing they were fighting for their sect against the Sunni Muslim aggressors.
Alawites comprise around 12 percent of the Syrian population. They split from the Shiite branch of Islam in the ninth century, believe prayers are not necessary and do not fast or perform pilgrimage, three of the key tenets of Islam. Many of the doctrines of their faith remain secret, adding to the mystical nature of the sect, although some scholars say Alawites have incorporated elements of Christianity into their faith.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Alawites gradually became the most powerful sect in Syria and the majority of the country’s military adheres to the faith. It was indeed from the army that Hafez al-Assad managed to stage a coup in 1970.
Initially the Shabiha were known for racketeering. In the 1980s, with Syrian troops occupying Lebanon and its economy crippled by shortages of goods, smuggling across the border became of the best way for well-connected Syrians to make a profit.
One result of this illicit economy was a reserve army of loosely employed, poor young Alawites that has proved very useful to a regime that had made paranoia about enemies a cornerstone of its survival.
When the uprising began in March 2011, the ranks of the Shabiha grew, as they began to repay their debt to the government by doing much of the manual work in suppressing dissent.
Whenever the opposition attempted a rally in the capital Damascus, scores of plain-clothed or khaki-clad men with firearms would appear in nearby streets waiting for an opportunity to intervene.
Every evening during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, dozens of Shabiha stood in front of mosques in Sunni neighborhoods of the capital, prepared to bludgeon and drag off anyone who said anything critical about the regime after emerging from prayers.
But according to the Guardian newspaper, it was in the hotbed of opposition, Homs, that the Shabiha really came into their thuggish selves.
Mohammed, an activist interviewed by the Guardian, said the Shabiha accompany the army on raids and at checkpoints in Homs but seem to have their own leadership and command structure -- and take orders from unknown officials elsewhere.
“They dress in black, or alike in army khakis, but wear a yellow ribbon on their shoulder,” Mohammed told the Guardian.
As their numbers grew and thousands of Homs residents fled their homes, members of the Shabiha moved in and colonized entire neighborhoods and stole goods and furniture from the empty houses. “They’re vultures” said Mohammed. “They leave nothing behind.”
The opposition Free Syrian Army have reportedly killed many of the Shabiha, but many more are waiting to take their place. With the declining economy due to international sanctions, many poor Alawites need the money. Others have been persuaded by the government propaganda that their country is the victim of a conspiracy launched by al-Qaeda, the Gulf states and NATO.
In addition to sectarian hatred and financial gain, the Shabiha have another motive for wanting to keep Assad in power.
“Being linked in the minds of most Syrians to the government, the Alawites are absolutely terrified of retribution if the government falls,” Professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told the Telegraph.
“And that fear is probably pretty accurate. The Alawites will face very bad things if the Assads are forced out.”
But are economic reasons, sectarian hatred and fear of the future really enough to drive someone to slit a child’s throat?
Selma said yes.
“If they know the whole area is against the regime they have no problem killing everybody,” she said. “That is how it works.”
(Written by Sara Ghasemilee)