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.
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. Yet while both foreign and Syrian jihadists probably number a couple thousand fighters, the regime-backed shabiha militiamen—pro-Bashar al-Assad gangs and security enforcers—may number close to 10,000. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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, Dariya, and other cities, one tactic employed by the regime to quell dissent in towns and villages close to sensitive areas 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. 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 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.
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. 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.
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. 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 and is losing territory to rebel forces. 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.
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 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