The regime of Syrian ruler Bashar Assad has enlisted gangs of murderous thugs known as ‘Shabiha.’ No assignment is too brutal or bloody for these men who are free to kill, plunder and rape. Assad knows that outright victory over the opposition is his only remaining chance to stay in power.
When the images and details of the massacre in the western Syrian town of Houla were released, the comparisons with other horrific killings were inevitable: My Lai, Srebrenica, Rwanda. More than 100 people, half of them children and a third of them women, were killed on the evening of May 25, after Friday prayers, in the Taldou neighborhood. Some died as a result of hours of shelling by tanks and Syrian army artillery, but most were killed by death squads from the surrounding villages, thugs who slit their neighbors’ throats or shot them at close range.
The world was horrified. Even China and Russia, loyal allies of the Syrian system, agreed to a United Nations Security Council statement condemning the massacre, albeit without identifying those responsible. Even the generally reserved UN special envoy, Kofi Annan, spoke of a “turning point,” while newly elected French President François Hollande promptly called for a military intervention.
Europe, the United States and perhaps even Kofi Annan are slowly realizing that there will be no compromise with Syrian President Bashar Assad, because there can be no compromise with Assad. Now that more than 10,000 people have died and tens of thousands have been tortured, the phase in which protesters were still staging peaceful demonstrations, and in which negotiations, transitional governments and compromises were possible is irrevocably over.
When the regime was still able to negotiate its own exit, it didn’t want to. Now it no longer has that option, because any sign of weakness would lead to its overthrow.
This realization hasn’t been triggered by the fact that the regime is massacring civilians to save itself. Similar bloodbaths have already taken place in the past. In April of last year, more than 60 people disappeared without a trace in Homs, after government troops had mowed down a group of peaceful protesters. In January, several families in a southeastern Homs neighborhood were massacred in a way that resembled the Houla killings. And when the Bab Amr neighborhood was captured by regime troops several weeks later, after having been almost destroyed by artillery fire, witnesses said that there were mass executions of those who hadn’t fled.
‘The Evidence is Clear’
What was different this time was that on Saturday morning, only hours after the killing frenzy, a team of UN observers managed to reach Houla, where they saw and counted the bodies, heard what the survivors had to say and saw the tracks the tanks had made. “The evidence is clear — it is not murky,” said German UN Ambassador Peter Wittig. “There is a clear government footprint in those killings.” Whereas earlier massacres were only documented in reports by the Syrian opposition and video recordings that could not be corroborated, this was a different situation.
By failing, the UN mission appears finally to be having an impact. The roughly 300 unarmed observers cannot possibly monitor a nonexistent cease-fire, during which more than 2,000 people had been killed by the end of last week. The UN observers cannot prevent what is happening, but they can prevent it from being covered up. This isn’t much, and for angry Syrians who burned images of Annan, it’s far too little. “We called the observers during the massacre,” a man from Houla who calls himself Abu Emad was quoted as saying, “but they refused to come and stop the murders. Damn then, and damn the entire mission!”
The observers eventually arrived. They were too late, but they came.
According to the overwhelmingly consistent statements of survivors and investigations by the UN observers, as well as the independent organization Human Rights Watch, people from several Houla neighborhoods demonstrated peacefully for the overthrow of the government around noon on May 25, after Friday prayers. Suddenly they came under fire, first from tanks and then from heavy artillery guns. Other witnesses said that soldiers had fired directly at demonstrators first.
After that, armed rebels with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) set out to attack the Assad troops’ bases outside Houla. It is unclear whether they retreated when they came under fire from the tanks or were hiding in the difficult terrain, but only a few men remained in the Taldou neighborhood when the heavy shelling stopped in the afternoon and the armed men arrived.
Killers Went From House to House
The men, some in civilian clothing and others dressed in army uniforms, went from house to house, reported survivors like 11-year-old Ali, who told CBS News: “They came to our house at night. First they took out my father and then my oldest brother. My mother shouted: Why are you doing this? Then they shot both of them, and after that my mother. Then one of the men came in with a flashlight and saw my sister Rasha. He shot her in the head.” Ali hid with his two little brothers. The man saw them and shot the brothers, but he missed Ali.
Other survivors who hid or played dead consistently gave the same accounts: The men combed through house after house and room after room, killing everyone, some with knives and some with guns. The massacre continued until the morning hours. When the UN observers arrived, they found nothing but corpses in the villages controlled by regime forces. The survivors had fled to neighborhoods held by the FSA, where they placed the bodies they had recovered on mats in the mosques before filming and burying them.
The regime in Damascus could not deny that the massacre had taken place. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi, parroting the government’s standard position, promptly blamed the killings on “armed terrorists” and “Islamists.” The Russian government, which had blocked every Security Council resolution condemning Syria, launched into a bizarre attempt to apportion the blame. The regime was apparently responsible for the assault by tanks and mortars, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. But the brutish murders, said Alexey Puchkov, chairman of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, “were definitely committed by the other side.”
Igor Pankin, Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, agreed: “We cannot imagine that it is in the Syrian regime’s interest to sabotage Special Envoy Kofi Annan’s visit to Damascus.” And he is right in one respect. In PR terms, a massacre of children cannot be helpful to the Assad regime. But he was wrong in another sense, inadvertently putting his finger on Russia’s growing frustration with its ally: Syria’s leadership is no longer taking decisions that would make sense for a government hoping to reach a political solution to the crisis.
Violence the Only Option For Keeping Power
By gradually concentrating power in the hands of the Alawite minority, to which the Assad clan belongs, the regime is fomenting a religious war against the Sunni majority, the very conflict it claims it wants to prevent. Now Assad has backed himself into a corner from which he believes there is only way out: victory. This is why the latest proposal from Berlin and Washington to attempt the “Yemeni solution,” which would be to depose Assad but keep the regime in power, will not work. The regime is relying solely on violence, accompanied by an outrageous propaganda narrative that blames foreign terrorists and al-Qaida for the uprising.
This conspiratorial obsession is nothing new. Starting in 2003, the intelligence services began secretly organizing the transfer of jihadists from Saudi Arabia, Libya and Kuwait across the Syrian border into Iraq, to deter the Americans from seeking regime change in Damascus as well. At the same time, the regime painted itself as a bulwark in the fight against al-Qaida. Foreigners who were later arrested reported how they had been kept in Syrian intelligence camps in Homs while waiting to be transferred into Iraq.
The attacks on several Scandinavian embassies in Damascus after the Danish cartoon controversy in early 2006 were blamed on an Islamist mob, but as it turned out, the regime had planted Islamists in the crowd. As a precaution, it also removed the guards from in front of a general’s house next to the Norwegian Embassy. Although there was no evidence that the regime was behind the major bombing attacks in Damascus, Aleppo and Deir al-Zor in recent months, they had several strange elements in common: The bombers had immense quantities of explosives, which they easily managed to get through all government checkpoints, and they detonated most of their bombs in front of empty buildings. When the regime published its death tolls after the first attack on Dec. 23, they included the names of men who had already died elsewhere. During the ostentatious burial service at the Umayyad Mosque, signs attached to many of the coffins read “anonymous martyr.” On May 9, just before a bomb exploded near the convoy of UN observer mission chief Robert Mood, the vehicles were detained at a military checkpoint just long enough so that they would be nearby at the time of detonation.
Conspiratorial violence is part of the Syrian regime’s approach to survival, a paranoid trait that ties in with its history. When the current president’s father Hafez Assad, a retired general in the Syrian air force, staged a coldly brilliant coup in November 1970, he brought his family, his clan and, ultimately, the Alawite minority into power after centuries of oppression. From then on, the Alawites defended their position at all costs, despite their relatively small share of the overall population.
Bashar Assad tried to preserve the illusion of a country that supposedly promotes reforms. Several months ago, he held a referendum to end decades of Baath Party control, and a few weeks ago he held bogus parliamentary elections. With the Houla massacre, however, all pretense at reform has evaporated again.
What happened in Houla followed the pattern of earlier attacks like the one in Homs. First, the target is bombarded with tanks and artillery from a great distance. Then the regular troops move in and drive out or shoot the last remaining rebels. Finally, the regime sends in its helpers, the Shabiha (“ghosts”), over which it has less and less control.
What were once gangs of thugs and smugglers from the hills around Latakia, the home turf of the Assad clan, have turned into an army of irregular troops numbering in the thousands. The gangs are backed by the beneficiaries of the regime, those who profit the most from Syria’s façade of a market economy, and who now have the most to lose. It’s a Faustian bargain. As long as they are loyal to Assad, they are permitted to murder, loot and rape, as was the case in Houla, where the Shabiha came from neighboring villages to the south.
The Shabiha were also active in the capital Damascus in August 2011. Every evening during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, dozens of them stood in front of mosques in Sunni neighborhoods, prepared to bludgeon and drag off anyone who said anything derogatory about the regime after emerging from prayers. At about 8 p.m., swarms of Shabiha thugs emerged from the intelligence service quarters, were loaded into requisitioned buses and driven to their deployment locations, where they lay in wait until the faithful dispersed after leaving the mosques.
The Shabiha are criminals and day laborers, mostly Alawites, but also Kurds with the PKK terrorist group, members of Sunni clans from Aleppo loyal to the regime, and some Christians. The Shabiha are the shadow force of a regime that no longer trusts its own army, but instead has created a monster that is taking on a life of its own, undermining the Syrian government long before it suffers a military defeat.
Months ago, the author and dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who is in hiding in Damascus, wrote: “The current heads of the security services may very well reform themselves into a mafia-type organization after the collapse of the regime and continue to practice the violence, theft and discrimination at which they are so adept.” Syria could eventually be controlled by marauding gangs, driven by greed and the fear of reprisal, which becomes more justified with each new wave of killings.
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