Shabiha Militias and the Destruction of Syria

Nov 28, 2012

Since the revolt in Syria descended into civil war, attention has largely focused on the growing effectiveness and influence of jihadist groups fighting in the country.[1] Members of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham have featured prominently fighting alongside secular rebels from street skirmishes with regime troops in Aleppo to battling for control of state military bases, particularly in the country’s north, to partaking in suicide missions against government targets in Aleppo, Damascus and other cities.[2] Yet while both foreign and Syrian jihadists probably number a couple thousand fighters,[3] the regime-backed shabiha militiamen—pro-Bashar al-Assad gangs and security enforcers—may number close to 10,000.[4] They have the backing of and share a common identity with both the country’s Alawite civilian population—which comprise about 12% of the country—and the crumbling Ba`athist state itself.[5] Shabiha militias also feel they have a genuine historical and political claim to the land, where non-indigenous fighters among the rebels have none.

This article reviews the background, actions and potential future role that shabiha militias may play beyond the increasingly inevitable fall of the al-Assad regime and the ongoing breakdown of Syria’s social fabric.

Mafia Beginnings
A word rarely heard before March 2011, the original term shabiha, meaning “ghosts,” referred to the darkened-windowed Mercedes-Benz cars used in the 1970s and 1980s by Alawite smugglers from the Syrian coast.[6] Among the original bootlegging leaders included Malik and Jamil al-Assad, a half-brother and brother respectively of former Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad. These men and others made huge profits smuggling cigarettes and luxury items from Lebanon. They terrorized local populations, openly carried weapons and considered themselves beyond the reach of the law in part because of their ties to the ruling family.[7] As president, Hafiz al-Assad and later his sons Mahir and Basil arrested many of these smugglers and for the most part brought their criminal enterprises under control after they began to undermine the state’s authority. Yet since March 2011, they have been recast by the regime as an indispensable force of intimidation and repression against dissenting populations.

At a time when peaceful protests were more widespread across Syria than they are today, militias including those with ties to the “original” Alawite shabiha gangsters, vigilante gangs and pro-regime civilians were deployed to intimidate, beat and detain protestors.[8] As it quickly became clear, earlier methods failed to coerce protestors, and sticks and batons were quickly substituted with guns, knives and brutal forms of torture and repression.[9]

Although hard evidence is difficult to acquire, a leading Damascus-based journalist claimed in 2011 that the shabiha’s numbers swelled with the release of hundreds of criminals from prison during a number of government amnesties.[10] As such, the established shabiha—those with close familial ties to the al-Assads—were positioned to command newly released criminals whose loyalty had been bought by the regime.

As in the cases of Houla,[11] Dariya,[12] and other cities, one tactic employed by the regime to quell dissent in towns and villages close to sensitive areas[13] appears to involve sending in paramilitary shabiha to carry out summary executions of civilians and to then disfigure the bodies on a mass, indiscriminate scale.[14] The tactic in these cases, it appears, is to drive fear into the local populations so that they discontinue their dissidence. Whether such massacres are conducted with the aim of forcefully moving Sunni communities away from areas deemed vital to the regime’s interests and survival and can therefore be understood as ethnic cleansing is unclear, but it is not to be discounted given the religious makeup and sectarian nature of the shabiha’s leading figures.

Other events suggest some shabiha groups may no longer be acting under the regime’s direct command and control. Armed by the state security forces and possibly by Hizb Allah[15] since the early days of the uprising, some now portray contempt for the national military forces because of their inability to effectively quell the uprising.[16]

Once fighting for a cause—the Syrian state with Bashar al-Assad at its head—shabiha militias today are fighting for the al-Assad family and the network of contacts surrounding it, which, importantly, they see as being the best guarantees of securing their own future interests. Although both shabiha and regular government forces have been defeated in most of the north, paramilitary groups are still carrying out widespread detention and torture operations in areas further south, particularly in and around Damascus, Homs and Deraa. Damascus is viewed as key to deciding the eventual outcome of the revolt.

The regime has predicted and warned of a situation in Syria similar to Afghanistan.[17] The spread of civil disorder, petty crime and kidnappings—the majority of which may be attributed to the actions of shabiha gangs—supports the regime’s own rhetoric that the uprising means an increasingly unstable climate.

The Elephant in a Bloody Room
Alawites, from whom the vast majority of shabiha members and leadership are drawn, comprise about 12% of Syria’s population. Areas such as Mezzah 86 in southwest Damascus, a sea of poorly-constructed houses set upon a hill overlooking the city and located several hundred meters from the main presidential palace, are virtually inaccessible to outsiders. This area, built to house the many thousands of Alawites who moved to the capital to take up government jobs during Hafiz al-Assad’s presidency, is today surrounded on all sides by shabiha and checkpoints. For the Alawite residents here, the government has provided electricity and water for decades without charge—inextricably intertwining the fate of this population to that of the state.

These civilians clearly feel that the revolt—which they view through a sectarian lens—is an existential threat. Incendiary government propaganda and a recent bombing in Mezzah 86 believed to have been carried out by a rebel group add to this fear as well as entrenching the feeling among shabiha members that they must kill or be killed.[18]

Another key feature binding the fate of Syria’s Alawites and pro-government militias with the regime is the state-imposed segregation of Alawites in areas across the country. In the 1970s and 1980s, the state erected hundreds of enclosed military housing complexes to provide free housing to thousands of military officers—almost entirely Alawites—and their families.[19] Today, it is from these projects that shabiha militiamen live with their families and from where campaigns against dissenting populations are planned and launched.

As such, more and more Alawite men, particularly those in and around Damascus and in districts shared with Syrians of other religions, will, out of fear, likely flood the ranks of the shabiha as the al-Assad regime nears its end. As a result, the shabiha’s activities may become more violent and widespread as rebels gain more ground on their way to confronting Assad-held Damascus.

The Syrian regime is running out of funds[20] and is losing territory to rebel forces.[21] Although the full extent of the government’s losses in the north and east of the country have not yet been fully realized and accepted by the regime and its shabiha enforcers, their reaction to the news that rebel forces are at the gates of Damascus—whenever that happens—will likely see them turn increasingly violent against local Sunni populations. Areas within their reach and previously known for resistance to the regime are likely to suffer most, and Dariya-like massacres may well become commonplace in the time until rebel forces finally overthrow the al-Assad regime.

The quickening rate of violence now coloring the revolt-turned-war means groups like the shabiha will play an increasingly central role in conducting violence as law and order breaks down in the major cities. If and when rebels reach Damascus after having taken control of much of the rest of the country, the shabiha, making a last stand, will likely unleash ferocious reprisals on Sunni-dominated neighborhoods and regions.

The psychology that Syria is “Assad’s Syria,” a country ruled by Alawites, is so prevalent that pro-Assad militias are unlikely to be easily brought to a negotiating table. This is further complicated by the fact that there are no immediately obvious shabiha leaders who could bring the roving militias under control. Little is known of the shabiha leadership, where it exists today, but prominent figures are likely to be trusted relatives of powerful Alawite groups such as the Shalish, Makhlouf and Deeb families.[22]

Once it becomes clear there is no future for the al-Assad regime, pro-government paramilitaries will likely flee Damascus and other mixed-religion areas around the country for the rural villages and towns of Qardaha, Shaykh Badr, Ain al-Tina and others in Syria’s coastal mountains—the Alawites’ ancestral home. Without what they perceive as protection, thousands of Alawite civilians may also migrate to these safe areas because of fear of retribution from rebels and Sunni civilians. Yet for shabiha gangs cut off from safe zones and unable to get to the mountains along the coast, bloody “last stand” scenarios may occur.

The arguments outlined in this article paint a grim future for Syrians and their country. Given the growing acceleration of violence[23] and the international community’s reluctance to get more directly involved in solution seeking, less bloody outcomes for Syria’s immediate future are scant. The violence will continue and likely worsen before the al-Assad regime leaves or is forced from power.

Stephen Starr is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising. He lived in Syria for five years until February 2012.

[1] “Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamental Opposition,” International Crisis Group, October 12, 2012; Aaron Y. Zelin, “Jihadists in Syria Can be Found on The Internet,” al-Monitor, October 18, 2012.

[2] Aron Lund, “Holy Warriors,” Foreign Policy, October 15, 2012. For a more detailed examination, see Aron Lund “Syrian Jihadism,” Swedish Institute of International Affairs, September 14, 2012.

[3]  Martin Chulov, “Syria’s Rebels Fear Foreign Jihadis in Their Midst,” Guardian, November 1, 2012.

[4] Joe Sterling, “Regime-Backed Militia Does Syria’s ‘Dirty Work,’ Analysts Say,” CNN, June 8, 2012; “Shabiha Militiamen, Tools of the Syria Regime,” Agence France-Presse, June 10, 2012.

[5] In the early years of his rule, President Hafiz al-Assad filled government ministries (as well as the security forces) with hundreds of thousands of his co-religionist Alawite civilians to solidify his strategic base but also to reduce the possibility of defections.

[6] Richard Engel, “Rebels Fear Syria’s ‘Ghost Fighters,’ the Regime’s Hidden Militia,” NBC, July 26, 2012.

[7] “The Original Shabiha by Mohammad D.,” SyriaComment, August 17, 2012.

[8] Yassin al-Haj Salih, “The Syrian Shabiha and Their State,” Heinrich Boll Stiftung, April 2012; “Shabiha Militiamen, Tools of the Syria Regime”; Peter Kellier, “Ghosts of Syria: Diehard Militias who Kill in the Name of Assad,” Guardian, May 31, 2012.

[9] At the start of the revolt, these militia men had yet to be titled, but began appearing at demonstrations whereby through the use of force attempted to quell dissent to the regime. Shabiha are not readily identifiable. They do not move with the military but can seamlessly move past checkpoints and into dissenting areas because of the effigies on their car windows and the accents with which they speak. They dress in military fatigues, tracksuits (as is common among men from Syria’s coastal region), or a mixture of both. Most travel in civilian cars with pictures of President Bashar al-Assad adorned upon them. Interestingly, as the revolt became more widespread, many new regime vehicles appeared in towns and cities around Syria. They were expensive, modern models that had not been seen before, and they drew the attention of civilians unfamiliar with their “comings and goings” through residential neighborhoods.

[10] Personal interview, Damascus-based journalist, 2011. This interview is expanded in Stephen Starr, Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (London/New York: Hurst/Columbia University Press, 2012). Also see Zeina Karam, “Syria Frees 70 Political Prisoners, Arrest 200 Protestors,” Arab News, March 26, 2011; “Syria Releases Hundreds of Prisoners But Violence Continues,” Voice of America, November 4, 2011.

[11] Christoph Reuter and Abd al-Kadher Adhun, “Searching for The Truth Behind The Houla Massacre,” Der Spiegel, July 23, 2012.

[12] Phil Sands, “Daraya, a Town Haunted by The Price of Defiance,” The National, October 18, 2012.

[13] Be they military in the case of Dariya, or adjacent to Alawite-populated towns and villages in the cases of Houla and Tremseh.

[14] Richard Beeston, “Mutilated Bodies Mark a Rout, but Defiance Lives On,” Times of London, February 2, 2012.

[15] This assertion is based on uncorroborated comments from a Syrian civilian familiar with shabiha commanders in Damascus in December 2011. Also see Nicholas Blanford and Tom Coughlan, “‘1,500 Hezbollah in Syria’: Assad Bolstered by Military Assistance,” The Times, October 6, 2012.

[16] In the words of one shabiha member quoted by Reuters, “Bashar will stay in power as long as I have breath in my body, but his army leaders are rats. My guys and I work for ourselves, without orders from anybody.” See “Syria’s Paramilitary Gangs a Law Unto Themselves,” Reuters, July 2, 2012.

[17] Andrew Gilligan, “Assad: Challenge Syria at Your Peril,” Daily Telegraph, October 29, 2011.

[18] “Damascus Bomb Kills at Least 11,” Reuters, November 5, 2012.

[19] To this end, Alawite families were distributed in every corner of the country but because they lived in enclosed housing complexes, they rarely interacted with the local, often Sunni, population. Over decades, this absence of interaction bred suspicion and often contempt between the powerful and the indigenous, powerless communities.

[20] The 2013 state budget deficit is expected to be 745bn SYP. See “People’s Assembly Listens to Government’s Financial Statement on General State Budget Bill for 2013 Fiscal Year,” Syrian Arab News Agency, November 4, 2012.

[21] Khaled Yacoub Oweis, “Syrian Rebels Take Airbase in Slow Progress Toward Damascus,” Reuters, November 25, 2012.

[22] David D. Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim, “Valued Relative and 2 Strong Loyalists Die in Damascus Attack,” New York Times, July 18, 2012; Salih.

[23] David Kenner, “Syria is More Violent Than Iraq at its Worst,” Foreign Policy, September 11, 2012.