In late May, Alawite men reportedly swarmed the Sunni villages of Taldou and al-Shoumarieh following heavy shelling from the Syrian military. Going house by house into the night, the men killed and pillaged everything in their path. By dawn, over one-hundred, mostly women and children, had been killed. Some of the dead were reportedly stabbed or shot to death, while others, including children, had their throats slit or skulls smashed. While both the Syrian government and opposition traded blame for the massacre, the writing on the wall was clear: the Shabiha had done this.
As Syria's civil war drags on - rising death tolls, organized massacres, and the growing enlistment of Alawites into local militias indicate Assad’s increasing use of the Shabiha. The Shabiha, meaning “ghosts” or “thugs” in Arabic slang, are militias comprised primarily of Alawite men, hailing from the same obscure religious offshoot of Shiite Islam as the Assad dynasty. Defined by their camouflage trousers, white sneakers, and unquestionable willingness to viciously protect the Assad regime, their influence has grown to challenge that of the Syrian military itself.
The Shabiha trace their roots back to the 1970’s, where they functioned primarily as an Alawite mafia. Operating under the auspices of Rifaat Ali Al Assad, the uncle of the current president, they smuggled contraband, all the while earning a reputation of unrelenting violence. Following the outbreak of the Sunni-led uprising in 2011, the Shabiha took on a different role. In mixed cities, they set out to form groups of “neighborhood watchmen,” acting to break up protests while protecting Alawite areas from Sunni attacks. Their role was still secondary to Syria’s well-stocked military, but persistent warfare and sectarianism changed this.
Strategically, Damascus is aware that strategies involving the military have not succeeded in quelling the unrest; however, they still have not yielded from a strategy of attrition warfare in the hope of eventually defeating rebel forces. While hard to believe, the regime has yet to deploy its heaviest firepower. But all the while, continued guerrilla attacks have weakened the Syrian military - one of Assad's key pillars of survival.
Persistently hounded by defections, thousands of casualties, and fatigue - Syria’s military is bleeding. But the military has not bled to death, and it remains a potent fighting force. Heavy combat continues to be the calling for more loyal and elite units within the Syrian military. Chiefly, the feared 4th Armored Division – commanded by the president's brother – continues to leapfrog from city to city, crushing rebel bastions wherever they surface. These units bear a heavy burden, as many soldiers within Assad’s military, mainly Sunni conscripts, remain hesitant to violently assault fellow Sunni strongholds. This mentality ultimately delegates many Syrian soldiers to roles of long-range shelling and other, less personal, combatant situations.
The same cannot be said for the Shabiha.
Herein is the key. With Syria’s military increasingly unable to end the uprising, a more isolated and embattled Assad is increasingly looking to his fellow Alawites and the new Shabiha to end the uprising once and for all.
With their new role, the Shabiha of outcasts and gangsters is no more. Alawites from all walks of life are joining Shabiha ranks, rather than the army, emphasizing that they increasingly view the militia as their primary protector. This separates the Shabiha from other regime-loyalist militias throughout the region, like Iran’s Basig militia - used to crush the Green Movement in 2009. Unlike the Basig, the Shabiha perceive their fight as one not only to preserve an embattled regime, but also the broader Alawite community. One thing has not changed however, the Shabiha's ability to inflict horrific violence.
With their ranks swollen, Homs, the epicenter of anti-Assad activism, is said to be swarming with Shabiha men from the Alawite neighborhood of Zahra. From there, they set up checkpoints and carry out military raids against anti-regime rebels elsewhere in the city. On the streets, they are proving that no one is above them.
On the other hand, their new found strength has deteriorated relations between them and the military. The army is wary, likely jealous, of their preferred treatment and combat successes. The Shabiha increasingly perceive the army as disloyal and incapable of inflicting the necessary bloodshed that needs to be done to win such a war. One Shabiha commander went so far as to refer to army commanders as “rats.” Yes, cooperation still exists; however, many Alawites no longer believe the military can be trusted. This is further highlighted by the recent defection of a former leading general, Manlaf Tlass, one of the few Sunnis in Assad’s inner circle.
As the uprising deteriorates into an intractable sectarian war, Shabiha militias will take a central role in hostilities. Their unmerciful methods emphasize the brutal nature of the conflict in Syria, because for them; there is no winning over hearts and minds. This reality will lead to further atrocities, making any future reconciliation in Syria between Sunnis and Alawites especially difficult, whether Assad remains in power or not.
Daniel Brode is an Intelligence Analyst with Max-Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm in the Middle East