Asad ul bashar slaughter machinesJune 7, 2012
The door to Dr Mousab Azzawi’s clinic, on the Mediterranean coast of Syria, was always open to anyone who needed help. But, operating in the heartland of the feared Shabiha militia, there were some patients the doctor would have preferred not to treat.
“They were like monsters,” said Dr Azzawi, who worked in Latakia. “They had huge muscles, big bellies, big beards. They were all very tall and frightening, and took steroids to pump up their bodies.
“I had to talk to them like children, because the Shabiha likes people with low intelligence. But that is what makes them so terrifying – the combination of brute strength and blind allegiance to the regime.”
As President Bashar al-Assad’s country continues its savage slide towards full-blown civil war, the violent, dark and secretive world of the Shabiha is coming out into the open.
Nine days ago, 108 people were butchered by the Shabiha in the town of Houla. The pro-Assad thugs went through the village, house to house, and slit the throats of anyone they came across – including 49 children. Exactly a week later, the Shabiha pulled 12 factory workers off a bus in the town of Qusayr, 40 miles to the south; tied their hands behind their backs, and shot them in the head
ning just how bloodthirsty the Shabiha can be. But inside Syria, their capacity for hideous brutality has long been known.
“Even before the revolution, any time there was unrest they would go out into the streets and stop it for the government,” said Selma, who comes from a prominent Alawite family – a Shia Muslim sect, into which the Assad family was born, and to which almost all of the Shabiha belong. Her cousins are Shabiha.
“They would just break people’s arms and legs. They would fight for Bashar to the death. It is natural – they have to defend their sect.”
Her cousins wore civilian clothes, she explained – “then the television can say that these are just civilians who love Bashar.”
Indeed, a survivor of the Houla massacre said he knew they were Shabiha, and not the army, because the men were wearing white trainers instead of black military boots. The white running shoes have grown into a terrifying sight for the people of Syria, who fear the ruthless, lawless Shabiha almost more than the army.
Assad, and his father Hafez before him, used the Shabiha to terrorise Syrians into obedience, brainwashing the militia into believing the Sunni majority was their enemy.
Alawites comprise about 12 per cent of Syria’s population, and historically were persecuted by the Sunnis; living in poverty in the mountainous rural areas around Homs and the port city of Latakia.
Alawites, who split from the Shia branch of the Islamic faith in the ninth century, believe prayers are not necessary and do not fast or perform pilgrimages. Many of the key tenets of the faith are secret, adding to their mystique, although some scholars say Alawites have incorporated elements of Christianity into their creed. Sunnis see them as heretics.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Syria’s French rulers needed soldiers willing to defend the regime from a Sunni uprising, so they incorporated large numbers of Alawites into the army, who were only too happy to fight Sunni
They became the most politically powerful sect in Syria, and the vast majority of the country’s top intelligence and military officers adhere to the faith. It was from the army that Hafez al-Assad emerged to stage his coup.
Initially the Shabiha were a mafia clan, making money through racketeering. Selma, the Alawite with Shabiha family, said her cousins were “filthy rich” through smuggling in diesel, milk and electronics. “Anything to Lebanon that is cheaper in Syria, and whatever is needed in Syria from Lebanon,” she said.
The ruling Assad family turned a blind eye to their criminal behaviour and violent methods. In return, the Shabiha became the Assads’ fiercely loyal defenders and enforcers.
“They are fuelled by this belief that they are fighting for their survival,” said Dr Azzawi. “Assad tells them that they must defend the government or else they will be destroyed; it’s kill, or be killed.”
Dr Azzawi, who now runs the Syrian Network for Human Rights from London, showed
An enormous man, identified on the video as Areen al-Assad – a member of the president’s family clan – posed with his gun, grinned from the steering wheel of his car, and flexed his muscles. His huge bicep bulged with a tattoo of the president’s face.
At the end of the video, the posturing Shabiha militants proclaim: “Bashar, do not be sad: you have men who drink blood.”
“It is their motto,” explained Dr Azzawi, who said that many of the men were recruited from bodybuilding clubs and encouraged to take steroids. “They are treated like animals, and manipulated by their bosses to carry out these murders. They are unstoppable.”
Hamza al-Buweida, a Sunni activist from Qusayr province, told The Sunday Telegraph how he watched in horror as his childhood friend got sucked into the Shabiha.
“Even when we were at university he looked to Bashar like he was God. Nobody was allowed to say something bad about him.
“It is something in their religion that moves them. And state media is terrifying them that terrorists will kill them if Bashar falls from power,” he said.
“The army gave my friend a gun, he started using it to shoot at the people in the demonstrations. The security forces gave him a special sense of identity.”
The militia operated with blind devotion to the leaders, referred to as “muallim”, meaning boss, or “khaal”, uncle. And indeed, it was in many ways a family business.
Mr Assad’s cousin Numir has taken over as one of the key rulers of the Shabiha – even though the government is careful to avoid direct association with the militia and their murderous acts.
How the men are paid is unclear, although many claim the Shabiha is funded by businessmen tied into the Alawite clique that dominates the government.