Shabiha (Syria)

Country: Syria
Details of Formation: The Shabiha emerged in the 1970s in the city of Latakia. They were mainly mafia-like gangs engaged in smuggling, protection rackets and other criminal activities. They had close links to members of the Assad family and shared the earnings of their criminality with the regime in exchange for impunity. They were mobilised between 1979 and 1982 by President Bashar al-Assad’s father against Muslim Brotherhood rebels. Several times the regime sought to curb the Shabiha’s power. News sources diverge on whether the Shabiha were disbanded in 2000 or whether the regime just curbed, but never disbanded the groups. There is little known about the Shabiha’s activities in the 1990s and 2000s. In 2011, Mr Makhlouf and Maher al-Assad, the president's brother, organized the revival of the Shabiha in the wake of anti-government protests. They transformed the Shabiha from primarily a smuggling gang into a violent militia.
Details of Termination: During the 1990s, the Syrian authorities cracked down on Shabiha militias, but did not disband them. One news source suggests that Bashar al-Assad disbanded the group when he became President in 2000, but no other news sources confirm this. After the group was revived in 2011, some Shabiha outfits were given formal status as Popular Committees and were later merged into the National Defense Force. News sources continue to refer to the Shabiha as an independent militia, which might indicate that not all Shabiha groups joined the NDF. It is not clear, whether these news source refer to the initial Shabiha groups or use it as a catch-all term for any kind of pro-regime militia.
Purpose: From 1979 to 1982, President Hafiz al-Assad used the Shabiha in a campaign against Muslim Brotherhood rebels. When the Shabiha were revived in 2011, their main purpose shifted to attacking and intimidating anti-regime protesters and opposition members. They are used by the regime so that the government can deny being involved in the violence; this goes so far that the Shabiha have been trained in the use of chemical weapons so that the government could deny its involvement if the Shabiha mounted a chemical weapon attack. The Shabiha also support the Syrian army in general, in a context of a shortage of recruits to the army.
Organisation: The Shabiha has close links to members of the Assad family and already during the time in which they were primarily a smuggling group they shared their proceeds with the regime. Maher al-Assad, the President’s younger brother, heads the Shabiha militia. Other leaders include Fawwaz, Munzir and Numir Assad, cousins of the President. One news source mentions Dhu al-Hemma al-Shalish, the director of presidential security and also a cousin of the President, as the key organizer and financer of the Shabiha. Another news source suggests that President Assad himself was involved in controlling the Shabiha. The Shabiha are reported to take orders from intelligence officers, especially the Air Force Intelligence Directorate. They cooperate with the military and the military gives the Shabiha cover and escort them in tanks. When the Shabiha are sent to targeted regions, they are led by members of the Fourth Division, the Republican Guard, Hezbollah, and Iranian advisers. Commanders fly to Damascus every six month to report and receive hit lists.
Weapons and Training: Shabiha members are armed with Kalashnikovs, Soviet heavy machine guns known as Duskhas, electric stun guns and clubs. They receive weapons from the government and the military, as well as training from Hezbollah, Iranian Quds forces and the Syrian regime. News sources do not specify the force giving the training on behalf of the regime. The Syrian regime’s training for the Shabiha members reportedly also includes the use of chemical weapons. The Shabiha were given control over the use of chemical weapons from the Syrian regime.
Size: In 2012, news sources estimate the group size between 70,000 to 100,000. In 2013, one news source estimates that the group had a hundred thousand members, while another news source puts the number at 50,000. A typical Shabiha unit in the capital comprises 20 to 25 fighters.
Reason for Membership: Most members are poor young men belonging to Assad’s Alawite sect. They are described as very loyal to Assad and being motivated to defend their own security. In west Damascus, Shabiha members live in housings built for them by Hafez al-Assad in the 1980s; they are said to pay back their debt to the regime by suppressing protests as part of the Shabiha. Additionally, many are members for economic motives: Foot soldiers earn a fortune for a day’s thuggery. In several cases, men were released from prison (including from death row) in exchange for joining the Shabiha. In Aleppo, the government made a deal with the Sunni Berri clan who joined as Shabiha; they received amnesty for their imprisoned drug clan members, as well as arms and salaries to ensure their future loyalty. One news source reports a member who received threats against his family if he would not join the Shabiha. Another news source mentions a member who joined to avenge a friend killed by rebels.
Treatment of Civilians: Shabiha militias committed numerous atrocities against civilians. They have been involved in attacking and killing (unarmed) anti-regime protesters. They were reported to arrest and shoot young men randomly. Shabiha were involved in the massacres of Houla and the massacre in the Tremseh village. In the Houla massacre the Shabiha also killed children. Other news sources report incidences of Shabiha kidnapping civilians, raping, torturing, beating protesters, as well as looting and destroying homes of Sunni people. The Shabiha are acting on the orders of the government, from which they obtained a permission to kill, and sometimes hit lists with future targets.
Other Information: Sources indicate that especially after the civilian uprising in 2011, both the press and the opposition increasingly used the term "Shabiha" as catchall phrase for all Syrian pro-government militias. Information about alleged activity locations or headcounts should be treated with caution. Initially, the term referred to gangs of smugglers primarily operating in the cities of Latakia and Aleppo, the coastal region and the region bordering Lebanon. Among those gangs was also the Sunni tribe of the Berri clan, a drug mafia in Aleppo.
References: Information was taken from news sources listed in the PGMD