Bashar al-Assad has plenty of ways to kill people. He's unleashed helicopter gunships and tanks against rebels in the streets of his own capital. The White House is warning Syria against the use of chemical weapons. The International Committee of the Red Cross recently declared the conflict to be a "civil war." And now a bomb attack in the center of Damascus has killed Assad's defense minister and three other high-ranking officials.
But even as the violence in Syria ratchets up, the most vicious weapon in Assad's arsenal is likely to remain one that is decidedly low-tech. Over and over again the same deadly pattern manifests itself: First the regular army bombards rebellious villages into submission with its heavy guns. Then the government sends in the Alawite militias, ragtag fighters in makeshift uniforms or civilian clothes, to do the real killing, up close and personal. No one in Syria is deceived by their casual dress code.
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They're known as the shabiha, a word derived from the Arabic for "ghost," and one that has already become indelibly linked with the primal brutality of the Assad regime. That's because the pro-government militias seem to crop up with ominous regularity wherever the worst atrocities are committed. The shabiha are said to have been involved in the fighting in the village of Tremseh that left hundreds of dead there late last week (though the precise circumstances remain murky. The United Nations has accused them of direct involvement in the massacre of 108 people in Houla in May, around half of them children. Assad's paramilitaries have also been implicated in the bloodbath at Mazraat al-Qubeir, near Hama, two weeks later. Organized loosely according to their places of origin, the shabiha stand outside the regular chain of military command. It's assumed that they answer directly to the Assad family.
The picture that emerges from numerous videos of the shabiha at work is chilling. (Given the difficulties involved in confirming information from Syria, it's hard to know whether all of these videos are authentic; reports from people on the ground inside Syria confirm many of the particulars. The image above is taken from a video purportedly showing shabiha beating one of their prisoners.) But while Assad's irregulars might seem unique in their savagery, the phenomenon they represent is widespread throughout the Middle East.
Indeed, while the world wrings its hands over Syria, the regime in Sudan -- largely out of the international limelight -- is deploying its own bands of civilian "thugs" (known locally as rabattah) against anti-government protestors in the streets of Khartoum and Omdurman. Iran's government routinely deploys its vast force of basij volunteers against dissidents there. In Yemen, pro-government militias acting on behalf of ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh were known as the baltajiya, a word still used in Bahrain; the Egyptians refer to the thugs-for-hire who worked for Hosni Mubarak as the baltageya. The words may differ, but the political strategy of using loosely organized hoodlums to suppress discontent is strikingly similar.