The new faces of Syria’s state backed militias

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The Syrian regime has changed its tactic by arming its feared militias, known as Shabiha, with modern weaponry to enable them to carry out missions against protesters, activists and defectors, a newspaper reported on Sunday.

Sources that asked to remain anonymous told the London-based Asharq al-Awsat that the Shabiha have undergone a major development since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March.

“Before the Shabiha carried traditional weapons like military guns, Russian rifles, grenades,” one person was quoted as saying. “But now they are carrying more modern weaponry including munitions and non-firearm weapons such as sticks, batons and other melee weapons.”

The Shabiha who were known in their respective neighborhoods “disappeared two months after the start of the protests,” the sources said.

This was because of the release of “name and shame” lists, compiled by residents of neighborhoods who could identify those in the Shabiha. The outing of their identities then forced them underground.

However, authorities needed the Shabiha so a new recruitment “policy” was put into effect and it would need to be that did not jeopardize military officers who the Shabiha reports to.

The new militia is said to be far more muscular in built, dressed in black and able to employ the necessary techniques in dealing with protestors and dissenters.

As they are new faces, they are able to blend into unsuspecting crowds of protestors and identify targets for the regime that is bent on squashing the uprising.

Some Syrians believe the new militias are convicts who have been released from prison on the condition that they will work for the beleaguered regime or are some secretly trained security forces used to kill protesters while also keeping an eye on the army for any defections.

The Shabiha has been in existence since Hafez al-Assad came to power in the late 1950s, but their role was merely to facilitate smuggling or intimidate elements within the army or police as a way to keep things in the president’s control. They received support from their close-knit relationship to intelligence officers and high-ranking army officers.

Known by their black-tinted cars and the emblem of Baath Party eagle embossed on the cars’ windows, the Shabiha received orders from the army officers wanting to show loyalty to the presidency. Some Shabiha men happen to be chauffeurs and bodyguards of high ranking officers as well.