Assad's 'Shabiha' Terrorize Syrians After Shelling

The Shabiha are Syrian paramilitary fighters largely from Bashar Assad's Alawite sect that have become an instrumental part of the Syrian regime's effort to crush that country's uprising. Eye-witness accounts detail the plainclothes fighters working in tandem with the Syrian military and brutally slaughtering men, women and children in rebel strongholds. Robert Siegel talks with Andrew Tabler, senior fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, about who the Shabiha are and how they operate.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Accounts of massacres in Syria have described shelling by the army and house-to-house raids and killings by the Shabiha. The latter are variously described as militia units, gangs of thugs, members of President Bashar al-Assad's own minority Alawite sect. For more on who these fighters are, we're joined now by Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He's the author of "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria." Welcome.

ANDREW TABLER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: First of all, the Shabiha, is it true that it means ghosts, or ghost?

TABLER: That's right. It means ghosts. It refers to the black Mercedes cars with tinted-out windows, which are oftentimes driven around the Syrian coast, and they were driven by outlaws, smugglers and other people who benefited from trade to Lebanon. Many of these, if not most, were Alawites and some Christian. And then with the coming of the uprising last year, they morphed into groups of thugs and a sort of paramilitary organization that backs the Alawite-dominated Assad regime.

SIEGEL: And are they numerous? Do you think they number in the hundreds or a few thousand? What would you say?

TABLER: Thousands. And now, the term generally now means supporters for President Assad, but the ones that we're seeing the effects of, those are primarily Alawites and Christians who go into areas after the regime shells those areas and then kills and terrorizes the civilian population.

SIEGEL: I've seen some pictures that purport to be of members of the Shabiha as, you know, a bodybuilder or two whom I've seen, you know, firing guns at things. It does have a certain, you know, criminal, thuggish look to it. Strikes you as typical?

TABLER: That's very typical, even before the uprising. I was recently in Wadi Khaled, in northern Lebanon, where you could look across the border and see the Shabiha patrolling the border alongside Syrian military forces. They had tight black shirts on, very muscular, shaved heads, camouflaged pants. They look very scary. And all of the people, the Syrian refuges in Lebanon, all they could talk about were Shabiha coming to their houses, ransacking their things and then many times killing and carting off many members of their families so they disappeared into the Syrian prison system.

SIEGEL: Big question about the Shabiha is this: The Syrian regime seems to use their role to be able to claim that the army has not committed massacres and it hasn't committed atrocities. How close to the army, how coordinated with the army do you figure the Shabiha are?

TABLER: The Shabiha report directly to the Assad family and other prominent Alawites. We know that they're paid sometimes hundreds of dollars a day, which is a lot of money inside of Syria, and they have been a part of the regime's approach from the beginning. Now, they're just playing a more prominent approach as the military and security forces can no longer deal with the situation in these areas which have fallen outside of government control.

SIEGEL: So when you hear an account in which people say first army artillery and tanks shelled our neighborhood and then the Shabiha came through, one shouldn't read this, from what I'm hearing you saying, as first was the fighting and then came the scavengers who did something else. That's the second wave. That's part of the attack.

TABLER: That's correct. It's all part of a coordinated attack, which has been going on actually for months. Now, what we're seeing is they're playing an increased role. The Assad regime's security forces and armed elite Alawite divisions try to go into areas to clear them, but they can't hold them militarily. So now, they're using shelling on these areas and the Shabiha activities as a way to try and maintain order or to reassert their control of those areas. The problem for them is it's not working, and the monitors are there to see it.

SIEGEL: To maintain order or to terrorize?

TABLER: They rule through fear, and so what they're trying to do is reassert that fear factor. They've been doing it for - since the beginning of the uprising, and this is the thing that we can't understand about President Assad. Many others thought that by now he would be able to change course, but he has instead quadrupled down on what they call in Syria the security solution, and that is use of armed forces, shelling, helicopter gunships and then the use of the Shabiha. The problem that Assad has is that the Syrian opposition is not going away, both the civilian opposition as well as the armed opposition.

SIEGEL: Andrew Tabler, thank you very much for talking with us.

TABLER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Mr. Tabler is the author of "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria." He's a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: