Shadowy, Pro-Regime Gunmen Known as ‘Shabiha’ Take on Larger Role in Syria Revolt
The swaggering gunmen operate as hired muscle for the Syrian regime, clutching rifles and daggers as they sweep through towns and villages, sometimes after regular military troops have pulled back.
Recruited from the ruling elite’s Alawite sect, the pro-regime militiamen known as “shabiha” are believed to be carrying out some of the most ghastly attacks of the Syrian uprising, allowing President Bashar Assad’s government to deny direct responsibility for the crimes.
New video from activists in the region of Houla, from the day more than 100 people were left dead, shows large plumes of smoke rising above towns and villages and the sounds of explosions as shells hit buildings on deserted streets.
The U.N. says there are strong suspicions that pro-Assad fighters were responsible for at least some of the carnage during a weekend massacre in Houla, bringing fresh attention to the shadowy fighters who appear to be taking on a bigger role in Syria’s bloody conflict.
More than 100 people were killed in the massacre, many of them women and children who were gunned down in their homes. Damascus has unequivocally denied any role, blaming the slaughter on terrorists — the same term it uses for rebel forces in the country.
Many Syrians say the shabiha are more terrifying than the army and security forces, whose tactics include shelling residential neighborhoods and firing on protesters. The gunmen, they say, are deployed specifically to brutalize and intimidate Assad’s opponents.
The origin of the word shabiha is murky, although some have speculated it comes from “shabah,” the Arabic word for “ghost.” Others say it signifies someone with a “long reach.”
In a recent report on the shabiha, Syrian writer Yassin al-Haj Salih described the fighters as “spare muscle clutching a gun.” Their privileges, he said, include “immunity, promotion, preferences at schools and universities, not to mention direct wages, such as the booty acquired in fighting the current revolution.