Participant in the Syrian civil war
|Active||1980s – 2012|
|Groups||Mohammed al-Assad's group|
Zaino Berri (Aleppo Leader)
Ayman Jaber (Latakia Leader)
Mohammed al-Assad † (Qardaha leader)
|Became||National Defense Force|
|Allies||Syrian Armed Forces|
|Opponents|| Free Syrian Army
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
|Battles and wars||Battle of Aleppo (2012–16)
Rif Dimashq clashes (November 2011–March 2012)
Battle of Tremseh
Rif Dimashq offensive
Shabiha (North Levantine Arabic: شبيحة šabbīḥa, pronounced [ʃabˈbiːħa]; also romanized Shabeeha or Shabbiha ; loosely translated "spirits", "ghosts", "shadows", or "apparitions") are mostly Alawite groups of armed militia in support of the Ba'ath Party government of Syria, led by the Al-Assad family. However, in the Aleppo Governorate, Shabiha are composed entirely from the local pro-Assad Sunni tribes such as al-Berri, al-Baggara, al-Hasasne and al-Zeido. In the city of Aleppo itself it was led by a powerful Sunni Arab al-Berri tribe.
Before the Syrian civil war
According to Shabiha privately interviewed by The Star in 2012, the Shabiha were established in the 1980s by Namir al-Assad, President Hafez al-Assad's cousin, and Rifaat al-Assad, the former president's brother. They were originally concentrated in the Mediterranean region of Syria around Latakia, Banias and Tartous, where they allegedly benefited from smuggling through the ports in the area. The shabiha, who were named for the Arabic word for ghost or for the Mercedes S600 that was popular for its smuggling sized trunk and was called the Shabah, were known by the Alawites in Syria as Alawi ganglords. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, they smuggled food, cigarettes and commodities, subsidized by the government, from Syria into Lebanon and sold them for a massive profit, while luxury cars, guns and drugs were smuggled in reverse from Lebanon up the Bekaa Valley and into Syria's state controlled economy.
The shabiha guards, who each had loyalty to different members of the extended Assad family, were untouchable and operated with impunity from the local authorities. They gained notoriety in the 1990s for the brutal way they enforced their protection rackets in Latakia and were noted for their cruelty and blind devotion to their leaders. By the mid-1990s, they had gotten out of hand, and President Hafez Assad had his son Basil Assad clamp down on them, which he did successfully. In 2000, when Bashar Assad came to power, they were apparently disbanded, but following the uprising that began in March 2011, the shabiha gangs, which evolved into the shabiha militias, were again approved by Assad's government.
Syrian Civil War
During the war, the shabiha have been accused by Syrian locals and the foreign press of attacking and killing protesters. In March 2011, activists reported that Shabiha drove through Latakia in cars armed with machine guns firing at protesters, and then later of taking up sniper position on rooftops and killing up to 21 people. It was reported by local activists that on 18 and 19 April that the shabiha and security forces killed 21 protesters in Homs.
In May, Foreign Affairs reported that the shabiba joined the Fourth Division and attacked civilians in the cities of Banias, Jableh, and Latakia." A month later in June, witnesses and refugees from the northwestern region said that the shabiha have reemerged during the uprising and were being used by the Syrian government to carry out "a scorched earth campaign […] burning crops, ransacking houses and shooting randomly." The Washington Post reported a case in which four sisters were raped by shabiha members. They are described to wear civilian clothes, trainers and white running shoes and often are taking steroids. A physician explained 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".
Many shabiha were described by locals as having shaved heads, thin beards and white trainers. It was also reported by Syrian locals that some elements in the Shabiha were contemplating plans to clear Sunni Muslim villages from the Alawi northwest in the hopes of creating an easily defendable rump state. One militiaman said he was ready to kill women and children to defend his friends, family and president: "Sunni women are giving birth to babies who will fight us in years to come, so we have the right to fight anyone who can hurt us in the future".
In July 2012, a captured alleged shabiha member admitted looting and murder, stating that it was for "money and power". The Toronto Star describes Shahiba as "mafia militia […] smuggling commodities, appliances, drugs and guns between Syria and Lebanon at the behest of Assad’s extended family" and the Telegraph as "a group that suffers from a dangerous cocktail of religious indoctrination, minority paranoia and smuggler roots".
In December 2012, NBC News reporter Richard Engel and his five crew members were abducted in Latakia. Having escaped after five days in captivity, Engel held a Shabiha group responsible for the abduction. Engel's account was however challenged from early on. More than two years later, following further investigation by The New York Times, it however came out that the NBC team "was almost certainly taken by a Sunni criminal element affiliated with the Free Syrian Army," rather than by a loyalist Shia group.
Alleged role in Houla massacre
On May 25, 2012, 78 people, including 49 children, were killed in two opposition-controlled villages in the Houla Region of Syria, a cluster of villages north of Homs. While a small proportion of the deaths appeared to have resulted from artillery and tank rounds used against the villages, the foreign press later announced that most of the massacre's victims had been "summarily executed in two separate incidents", and that witnesses affirmed that the Shabiha were the most likely perpetrators. Townspeople described how Shabiha, from Shia/Alawite villages to the south and west of Houla (Kabu and Felleh were named repeatedly), entered the town after shelling of the ground for several hours. According to one eyewitness, the killers had written Shia slogans on their foreheads. The U.N. reported that "entire families were shot in their houses", and video emerged of children with their skulls split open. Others had been shot or knifed to death, some with their throats cut.
The fifteen nations of the U.N. Security Council unanimously condemned the massacre, with Russia and China agreeing to a resolution on the Syrian Civil War for the first time. The U.S., U.K., and eleven other nations–the Netherlands, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Bulgaria, Canada and Turkey–jointly expelled Syrian ambassadors and diplomats already 4 days after the massacre took place.
Alleged role in Al-Qubair massacre
Another massacre was reported but not investigated by local villagers and activists to have taken place in the Syrian settlement of Al-Qubair on June 6, 2012, only two weeks after the killings at Houla. According to BBC News, Al-Qubair is a farming settlement inside the village of Maarzaf.
According to activists, 28 people were killed, many of them women and children. The day after the massacre, UNSMIS observers attempted to enter Al-Qubair to verify the reports, but were fired upon and forced to retreat by Sunni armed militia that have entered the city the day before. Victims were reportedly stabbed and shot by shabiha forces loyal to the government of Bashar al-Assad, according to the victim's families.
In the coastal region, the group is reportedly led by Fawaz al-Assad and Munzer al-Assad, first cousins of President Assad. Another source, Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, has been quoted as saying that "most Syrians view" the Shabiha as "operating without any known organization or leadership." Sunni and Alawite businessmen who are protecting their own interests in the country are alleged to be paying the groups.
Accusation of looting and outside analysis
Aron Lund, a Swedish journalist specializing in Middle East issues, says that post-2011 the term "Shabbiha" is generally used as a generalized, insulting description of an Assad supporter.
- National Defence Force
- Jaysh al-Sha'bi
- Popular Committees
- List of armed groups in the Syrian Civil War
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- Brown Moses Blog: Aleppo – Zaino Berri, Shabiha Leader, Captured And Executed
- Sunni Shabbiha
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Qubair is a small farming settlement inside the Sunni Muslim village of Maarzaf, which lies close to Alawite villages.
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- United Nations Human Rights Council: Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (Word Document, 9.16 MB, 102 pages, advance edited version), 15 August 2012, containing numerous findings relating to shabiha activities