Fifteen months on, some 13,000+ killed, 100,000s injured and about half a million people displaced in Syria and finally, the role of the Shabiha is being questioned in the Western media.
“”Women, children and old men were shot dead,” Syria’s foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, told reporters this week. “This is not the response of the heroic Syrian army.”
Then who did kill 108 people in Houla, including 49 children, in cold blood? The answer appears to lie with the armed civilian militias from nearby Alawite villages, who are known to Syrians as shabiha, from the Arabic word for ghosts.
The term initially referred to shadowy gangs of smugglers who grew up around the coastal city of Latakia in the 1970s, and whose immunity from law seemed to come from their tribal and village connections to the ruling Assad family.
These early shabiha thrived under the wary eye of President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, and for good reason. In 1980s, with Syrian troops occupying Lebanon and its economy crippled by goods shortages, smuggling goods across the Lebanese border became one of the best ways for well-connected Syrians to make money.
One result of this illicit economy was a reserve army of loosely employed, poor young men from the Alawite offshoot of Shia Islam that has proved very useful to a regime that has made paranoia about enemies, real and imagined, the cornerstone of its survival.”
“In May 2011, people who fled an assault on the western village of Tell Kalakh, which lies close to the Lebanese border, told reporters that some residents had had their throat cuts in the street by black-uniformed “shabiha”.
Some of the attackers had been from Qardaha, a predominantly Alawite town in the north-west that is the ancestral home of the Assad family, and had been checking residents’ ID cards in order to find local Sunnis, they said. Tell Kalakh is a main Sunni village surrounded by 12 Alawite villages.
“If they see he’s a Sunni from his family name, they take him away and kill him,” one woman told Reuters news agency.
“They destroyed the Omar Bin Khattab mosque because it is named after a companion of the Prophet Muhammad and dear to Sunnis. What we have here is a sectarian war between the Alawites and Sunnis.”
Such claims raised suspicions among the opposition that the government was using shabiha to help it play up fears of a sectarian divide.”
“BEIRUT — 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. “