News / Middle East

Pro-Assad Militias Under Scrutiny After Syrian Massacre

In this citizen journalism image provided by the Kfar Suseh Coordinating of the Syrian Revolution, taken on May 8, 2012, Syrian militiamen known as "shabiha" are seen standing in an alley inthe  Kfar suseh area of Damascus, Syria.
In this citizen journalism image provided by the Kfar Suseh Coordinating of the Syrian Revolution, taken on May 8, 2012, Syrian militiamen known as "shabiha" are seen standing in an alley inthe Kfar suseh area of Damascus, Syria.
WASHINGTON - Syrian pro-government militiamen known as the "shabiha" are facing international scrutiny for their alleged role in the May 25 massacre of more than 100 civilians in the central Syrian town of Houla.

U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said there are "strong suspicions" that shabiha gangs were responsible for the summary execution of dozens of men, women and children in their homes last week. Houla residents told visiting U.N. observers and reporters that they watched the shabiha carry out the killings.

In Syria, the term shabiha initially referred to shadowy gangs of smugglers around the seaside city of Latakia in the 1970s.

Opposition activists say Syria's ruling Assad family has used the gangs to engage in criminal activities for decades, paying them with government funds and providing them immunity from prosecution.

In the past, most shabiha members came from coastal regions such as Qardaha, dominated by the Assad's family's minority Alawite sect.

Militia expands role

But activists say the focus and membership of the shabiha have changed since the start of Syria's 15-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

Hozan Ibrahim, a Berlin-based member of the main opposition Syrian National Council, told VOA that pro-Assad gangs have become a government tool for suppressing protests and killing people in rebellious towns and villages.

Ibrahim also said the government has recruited militiamen from all of Syria's ethnic and sectarian groups. "We can find [majority] Sunnis, Alawites, Druze [in the shabiha] - whoever is loyal to the regime," he said.

The Syrian government denies operating any militias. It also is not clear how gang members are paid.

Ibrahim said businessmen loyal to President Assad pay the shabiha on behalf of the government. Lina Tibi, a Syrian National Council member in Cairo, said witnesses have told her the shabiha receive funds directly from police stations.

"The regime keeps telling Alawites that if Bashar is gone, the Sunni people will kill you," she said. "So Alawite gangs defend themselves through rape and killing."

Government aids militias

Activists say the Syrian government wields great influence over the shabiha.

At pro-Assad rallies, Tibi said the militiamen often chant President Assad's first name, Bashar, pledging to give their souls for him and for his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad.

"We also have many videos showing the shabiha having weapons in their hands and police or army standing next to them," she said. "Why don't [the security personnel] take the weapons from them? Because they are working together."

Opposition members say the Assad government also has been encouraging the shabiha to engage in sectarian attacks in the hope of transforming the conflict and weakening the opposition.

Most of the Houla massacre victims were residents of Sunni villages. Survivors blamed militiamen from neighboring Alawite communities.

Ibrahim said the Syrian government has been trying to spread the idea that the uprising is a "real threat" to the Alawites and to all loyalists.

"That's why we see that regime loyalists are very violent in their response," he said.

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

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Comment Sorting
by: Anonymous from: America
June 01, 2012 8:31 AM
Imagine a vampire standing over a blood drained dead body that has two holes in the neck. The vampire has blood dripping from his fangs all over the vampire’s chest. The first thing the vampire says is “We need to look for the person that committed this murder.” That is the Assad Regime. They have now gone beyond torturing children. The Assad dictatorship now murders children and babies in the open light of day. Either Assad, his supporters, the Shabiha and the Ba’ath Party must be punished in the fullest possible way or every war criminal and mass murderer in the world will see that they can kill another human being and the world will accept this type of crime.

by: Anonymous
June 01, 2012 4:09 AM
Those men have dark souls.
Will Allah have mercy on them when they die?

by: mikeh from: here and there
May 31, 2012 2:14 PM
Where is the scrutiny? By whom? This is just more empty words from diplomats that have no desire to get their hands dirty.

by: Benesophia from: USA
May 31, 2012 1:52 PM
Seems to me that most of this story is based on information provided by "Activists say..." and "Opposition activists say..."

It is said that "truth is the first casualty of war." Could this be the case here? Should true reporting not include more thorough investigation rather than one sided "unsubstantiated" reports and opinions?

by: Xira from: Austin
May 31, 2012 1:35 PM
Just like our plausible-deniable rape room treatment in our jails?

That kind of 'state use of criminals'?

by: Tamas
May 31, 2012 1:00 PM
Perhaps the U.N. should be talking to the militias instead of sanctioning Assad.

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