TitleDevelopments in Syria

The Shabbiha; terrifying criminals in the service of the regime

29 Jul 2012

■ Ali Mohtadi
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Shabbiha is the name given to a repressive plainclothes force in Syria which is active at the moment. This group has gone far beyond its similar versions in other countries of the Middle East and they are now even murdering children and women.

The Arab Spring and the developments following it in the Arab countries have been accompanied with a new political culture and literature for these countries. Most of the people have been silent before their rulers in the course of all these long years. The process of change in the governments of theses states either came about with the death of their rulers of with various kinds of military coups. Now, it is perhaps for the first time that a popular uprising is forming against the rulers and it is based on the will of the majority of the people and their demands for justice and social welfare.

In the face of all this, the states did not remain indifferent and they did everything in their power to suppress these protests. One of the most important instruments of these states for suppression were forces who did not apparently have any influence in the society but their sudden violent and radical emergence shows that they had been groomed for such circumstances from many years ago.

In Iran, following the tenth presidential election, the suppressive activities of a group called the ‘plainclothes agents’ came to the fore. Civil activists said that they were affiliated with forces such as the Ansar Hizb Allah or the Basij and they played a significant role in the violent crackdowns on public demonstrations which led to the murder of dozens of demonstrators.

In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi was using paramilitary forces for the suppression of people who were poor and criminal citizens of other African countries. In Bahrain, part of the people who are in charge of suppressing people are individuals with Pakistani and sometimes Afghan nationalities. In Egypt, a group of plainclothes people called the Baltaja, who were riding camels, violently attacked people and played a role in the suppression. The Balatija is another group of plainclothes and violent group in Yemen who violently attacked people in favour of Ali Abd Allah Saleh’s government. The Shabbiha is the latest example which is still forcefully in action and it is the suppressive plainclothes agents in Syria who have gone far ahead of their similar versions in other countries and they are now murdering even children and women.

Who are the Shabbiha?

The Shabbiha is a group formed by Malik al-Assad, Hafez Assad’s nephew, in 1975 after the military forces of Syria entered Lebanon. In order to form this group, Malek al-Assad used individuals with very low IQ, high physical power and athletic build. These people were generally criminals promised impunity for their crimes in return for their membership in this group. All members of the Shabbiha belong to the Alawites, the ruling party, and they have been very carefully selected. From the outset, they are indoctrinated and they are highly loyal to the Assad family. These people fear a gruesome fate if the Syrian government collapses.

In the beginning of its genesis, the Shabbiha concentrated on the smuggling of goods for many years. They would smuggle anything of selling value into Syria and in return they would smuggle fuel and electrical appliances, which were cheap in Syria, to Lebanon and Jordan. Another large part of the activities of the Shabbiha was concentrated on money laundering and running illegal shipping docks.

In the field of security, this group is under the aegis of the Syrian intelligence organisation and high on their agenda is instilling a sense of fear of the state in the minds of the public.

In the early 1990s, Basel al-Assad, Hafez al-Assad’s eldest son, who was supposed to succeed to his father as the president, came to the conclusion that the illegal activities of the Assad family can be regulated in a different way and he gradually dissolved the Shabbiha, because he thought that eventually the presence of this group will not be in the interest of the Assad family. To this end, Basel organised a motorbike racing competition in which most members of the Shabbiha participated with their super powerful motorbikes. However, after the race, he confiscated all the motorbikes and destroyed them. He then declared that the presence of such bikes in the cities and streets of Syria is illegal.

Nonetheless, Basel did not live long enough to dissolve this group once forever. In 1994, he died in a suspicious driving accident and thus the most important successor of Hafez al-Assad was removed. It was following his death that the post went to Bashar al-Assad who did not have any political experience before and was at the time studying medicine in the UK.

After the popular demonstrations began in Syria in 2011, the state used the Shabbiha forces to suppress the opposition and they gained increasing power by the day. Eye witnesses say that the terms and the language used by the members of this group for addressing each other or their leaders is the same as the one used among intelligence and security forces in Syria.

Why Shabbiha?

The word Shabbiha is a plural form of the word Shabih having the root Shabah. In colloquial Arabic, it means thugs. In Syria, the name is used to refer to paramilitary plainclothes forces affiliated with the government. The Syrian opposition calls the Shabbiha paramilitary the death squads and they hold them responsible for the massacre of protesters and murders such as those perpetrated in Houla.

There are other accounts about the nomenclature of this group. Yet, the most important reason for the name given to this group has to do with their activities. The members of this group are like spectres: they suddenly appear among people and as soon as they accomplish their mission, they disappear immediately; that is why the people call them the Shabbiha as they are quick and invisible like spectres.

Weapons used by the Shabbiha

Because members of the Shabbiha are not a formal group, they have no specific organisational weapon. Yet, in order that their connections with the Syrian government may not be disclosed, they are deprived of government issued weapons.

The Shabbiha usually work with knives, sticks and very light firearms and because they are capable of extremely violent acts, in their group attacks, they usually create gruesome scences.

So far, no official or unofficial group has been able to identify members of this group but the Aljazeera network has quoted eye witnesses saying that the numbers of the Shabbiha in Syria amount to 8 to 12 thousand people who are mostly stationed in Latakia, Homs, Dera and Baniyas.

Eye witness reports

The British Sunday Telegraph published a documentary report about the Shabbiha group. In this report, Dr. Mousab Azzawi, a resident of Latakia who has fled to London says: “They were like monsters. They had huge muscles, big bellies, big beards. They were all very tall and frightening, and took steroids to pump up their bodies. I had to talk to them like children, because the Shabbiha likes people with low intelligence. But that is what makes them so terrifying – the combination of brute strength and blind allegiance to the regime”

Sami, another eye witness whose uncle is a member of the Shabbiha says, “The world has just become familiar with the term Shabbiha but we knew for a very long time that this group is active inside Syria in the interest of the regime and they vehemently suppress any kind of gathering, however small it may be. They usually appear suddenly in the town. They publicly break the legs and hands of a few people known to belong to the opposition and then disappear. Members of the Shabbiha wear plain clothes so that the Syrian TV can represent them as supports of Bashar Assad from among the people.”

According to Hamza, a political activist from al-Qusayr, “The Shabbiha is carefully chosen from among the Alawites and those who are working out as body builders. They are prepared to support Bashar Assad with their life and they see him like a God.”

Numir, whose uncle is the leader of a subsidiary Shabbiha group says that “the Syrian regime is very mindful that no connection between the regime and the Shabbiha is ever discovered and the members of the Shabbiha are always threatened and terrified that if the Assad regime collapses, members of this group will be exterminated by the people and the Sunnis because the main enemy of the state are the Sunnis. It is usually economic reasons, poverty and religious and ethnic hatred that drives these people to join the Shabbiha.”

The most important crime of the Shabbiha

On 27 February 2012, Syrian political groups announced that the bodies of 66 people have been discovered in the Baba Amr district of Homs. They were abducted sometime before and they had all been beheaded. On the same day, news of another crime was released in Homs whose victims were 26 people including six women and children.

On 12 March 2012, bodies of 87 people were discovered in the Karm al-Zaytoun district of Homs, most of whom were women and children who had been killed after severe tortures. Some of the bodies could not be identified because of torture.

On 15th March 2012, the Sham TV channel announced that bodies of 22 people were discovered in the Wadi Khalid district of Idlib. They were all blindfolded with tied hands and they were shot from behind their heads.

On 7th April 2012, the Shabbiha forces suddenly attacked a district in Hama and brutally massacred members of three families including little children. The tolls of this massacre reached 70.

On 25th May 2012, the massacre in Houla left 108 people killed, 49 of whom were children. This gruesome incident which was attributed to the Shabbiha brought the name of this group more than ever to the world media. The same crime was repeated in al-Rastan two weeks later.

Robert Mood, head of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria, announced in his report that his envoys had identified the bodies of 32 children who had been killed in the Houla massacre. All of these children were under the age of 10.

Deutsche Welle Persian

Tehran Review
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