Shabiha militias are the shock troops of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Drawn largely from Assad’s Alawite minority group, these paramilitary groups are blamed by the Syrian opposition for the most violent excesses committed against the anti-government protesters and opposition sympathizers.Read more: Is the Conflict in Syria a Religious War?
Origins of Shabiha: Smuggling in Coastal Syria
The term shabiha means “ghost” in Arabic and originates in the shadowy crime syndicates that emerged in the coastal city of Latakia in the 1970s. With few job opportunities in the mostly Alawite coastal hinterland, many young men from the area earned their living by smuggling consumer goods, drugs and weapons between Lebanon and Syria.
But what started as small-time illicit trade soon grew into a large criminal enterprise. Smugglers developed close ties with the state security apparatus dominated by Alawite officers who hailed from the same villages as shabiha. During the era of Syria’s military presence in Lebanon (1976-2005), many Syrian army officers made fortunes through illegal import businesses, facilitated by shabiha groups.
And this is how the story acquired its political twist. The most successful shabiha were the well-connected members of the wider clan of then-president Hafez al-Assad. Free from police harassment, shabiha were expected to help the ruling family in case of any political trouble at home, blurring the line between the state and the mafia.Read more on shabiha’s origin in this report by the Heinrich Boll Foundation.
Role in the Syrian Uprising: Doing the Dirty Work
The 2011 anti-government uprising brought the ruling family, now headed by Assad's son Bashar, closer to ruin than ever before, and the regime fell back on all resources to crush the opposition. While Syrians supporting the uprising mostly belong to the Sunni majority, most of the Alawite community rallied behind Assad.
An Alawite shabiha interviewed by the Global Post describes how the government recruited former criminals to do its dirty work: “We started by facing the protesters, but when the opposition became armed we attacked them in their villages. In addition to our salaries we take whatever we can get during the attacks: TVs, video players, electronics.”
As the protests escalated into an armed conflict, the opposition started using the term shabiha to describe any civilian Assad supporter taking part in the government’s crackdown on the uprising. Fearing revenge because of their affiliation with the regime, growing numbers of Alawites began joining pro-government paramilitary groups that have been blamed for massacres of civilians.
A gripping Reuters article describes how Alawite militiamen in the battered city of Homs, a hotbed of the uprising, proudly accept the tag shabiha, seeing themselves as the first line of defense in a sectarian war against Sunni rebels.
Can Shabiha Win the War for Assad?
Dependent on recruits in areas populated with the Alawite minority, shabiha militias will never have the capacity to dislodge the rebels from the Free Syrian Army, which has taken root in most parts of the country. But the danger is that if Assad’s troops disintegrate under the weight of defections, the regime will rely increasingly on its core Alawite support and carry on a desperate, protracted fight for bare survival.
After so much bloodshed, shabiha militiamen can’t hope to have any future in Syria if the regime falls. They will fight to the end, which could be a long time away. A former Syrian army officer told the GlobalPost: “The loyalty of the shabiha for the regime is far greater than the loyalty of the other security forces because, if the regime is toppled, they will be the first to be wiped out”.Go to Current Situation in the Middle East / Syria / Syrian Civil War