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

You May Like

Isolation, Despair Weigh on Refugees in Remote German Camp

Refugees resettled near village of Holzdorf deep in German forestland say there is limited interaction with public, mutual feelings of distrust

Britons Divided Over Bombing IS

Surveys show Europeans generally support more military action against Islamic State militants, but sizable opposition exists in Britain

Russia Blacklists Soros Foundations as 'Undesirable'

Russian officials add Soros groups to a list of foreign and international organizations banned from giving grants to Russian partners

This forum has been closed.
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.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs