The details of the recent massacres in the Syrian district of Houla and the farming hamlet of Mazraat al-Qubeir were bloodcurdling: children shot point-blank, throats slit, skulls crushed, entire families gunned down in their homes, the stench of charred human flesh, the paucity of survivors. The dead have been buried, but the question remains: Who could do this? Who could commit what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described as “unspeakable barbarity?” “Not even a monster,” insisted Syrian President Bashar Assad. But what about a shabih?
The gangs known as the shabiha — the plural of shabih — along with uniformed elements of the security forces, were blamed by many observers and witnesses for both massacres. (Some regime sources, however, say that rebels had a hand in the killings.) In an increasingly bloody 15-month crisis, the shabiha have become increasingly prominent as irregular paramilitary troops, regime enforcers and the go-to guys when the going gets tough and bloody.
Their origins go back to the late 1970s and early ’80s, when Assad‘s father and uncles ran the country. The father Hafez Assad was President, his brother Rifaat had a pivotal role in the security forces and his other brother Jamil was setting up and consolidating his shadowy business dealings, which allegedly included drug trafficking and weapons smuggling, according to Radwan Ziadeh, a longtime member of the Syrian opposition. The gangs, initially drawn from the Assads’ extended family and their Alawite sect, were described as mafia enforcers. “They made their living from smuggling [electrical goods, tobacco, drugs, alcohol, antiquities, etc.] and imposing ‘taxes’ [extortion],” Syrian writer Yassin al-Haj Salih said in a recent report published in Germany. “They were noted for their brutality and cruelty and their blind devotion to their leaders.”
At a time when, Ziadeh says, many Syrians could not afford new cars, the gangs rode around in flashy Mercedes 600s, a model Syrians nicknamed the shabah. The men driving them became the shabiha, some say in part because of the car’s nickname but also because they would engage in tashbih, thuggish acts of blatant disrespect toward others. (The term shabiha does not mean ghosts, as some have translated, although the root of the word shabah means ghost. The plural of shabah is ashbah.)
They were gangsters, and they did not discriminate when looking for victims. Alawites figured among the oppressed despite their religious ties to the Assad regime. In the early months of the current uprising, when it was predominantly peaceful, busloads of shabiha — some wearing items of military clothing, many dressed in black and most carrying some sort of a weapon, like a stick or metal pipe — were a common sight around mosques and other potential gathering places. They have been useful for a regime that rules by fear, but they have evolved — or devolved — into something else in the 15 months since Syrians first took to the streets.
Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma who edits the prominent blog Syria Comment, says the power and influence of the shabiha has expanded during this time. “These shabiha, who used to be in the shadows and looked down on by everybody else as garbage, are now at the top, and they are, of course, connected to the security services, and they’re all working it from the inside,” he says. “The regime is increasingly being taken over by the shabiha. They’re the ones who are willing to do the hard work, which is killing Syrians, and no one can say boo to them anymore.”
Ziadeh disagrees with Landis that the shabiha are running the show. Yes, he says, they have become more violent, more undisciplined, but “they are under the full control and coordination with the security and the army, and the proof is the Houla and Qubeir massacres.” (The shabiha are widely blamed for the ugliest of the violence, the house-to-house raids, following heavy shelling by the military.)
Still, Ziadeh and Landis agree on one thing: the regime’s strategy seems to be to focus the multisectarian military, whose lower ranks are packed with Sunnis, on killing from a relative distance, while the largely (but not solely) Alawite shabiha are doing the killing up close. It’s a cold calculation, intended to stem further defections from the lower, heavily Sunni levels of the armed forces, while also stoking sectarian hatred and revenge and trying to tie the broader Alawite community’s fate to that of the regime. But the fact is, not all Alawites are Assadists, and not all Assadists are Alawites. Will the distinction fade as the conflict becomes bloodier, as shabiha continue their rampage and sectarianism is wielded like a weapon? The questions about this conflict — including where it’s headed, who supports whom, and who could hunt and kill a child cowering in his home — are simple enough. The answers are anything but.