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.
The phenomenon begs a question. Middle Eastern dictators typically spend lavishly on weaponry. (Just take a look at Assad's arsenal.) They command large conscript armies and multiple security services. So why do they need to "outsource repression" by recruiting street gangs as well?
Adel Iskandar, a lecturer on Middle Eastern politics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., puts it this way: "They're hired to do the dirty work the police can't do." When suppressing dissent, official institutions have their limits. What does a despot do, for example, when his police force and conscript army draw many of their recruits from the same ethnic and confessional groups that are protesting against the government? One answer is to hire extra muscle from the criminal world. Activists in Sudan, for example, say that the poorly paid regular police are notably reluctant to crack down on protestors. So most of the violence used against demonstrators has come from local thugs, who are richly rewarded for their efforts by the government.
In Syria, the shabiha evolved from gangs centered in the city of Latakia, a stronghold of the minority Alawite religious group that has long ruled the country. Latakia was the base of an organized crime network headed by Bashar al-Assad's uncle, Jamil, who made a fortune from smuggling and prostitution. (Earlier this year, the European Union imposed a travel ban on Jamil's sons, Fawaz and Mundhir, specifically citing their close involvement with the shabiha.)
Unlike their counterparts in Egypt, these Alawite toughs enjoy a fairly high standard of living from their state-sanctioned criminal activities. What welds them together is a paranoid awareness of their minority status; opponents of the regime are automatically viewed as sectarian enemies. "The Syrian army is mixed," notes Ahed al Hendi, a former Syrian political prisoner who now works for the Syrian American Council. "The soldiers can be Christians or Sunnis. So the regime doesn't trust the soldiers to deal directly with the rebels and the protestors."
In Iran, the basij are often recruited from shantytowns and the impoverished countryside, a background that predisposes them to ill-will against dissidents and political protestors. "Basij members who do not have any social bonds to the city dwellers -- and against whom they feel strong class and cultural resentment -- are expected to be capable of violently suppressing urban, middle-class uprisings," says Ali Alfoneh, an Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute. In Egypt, the baltageya usually hail from the vast slums of Cairo and other big cities. In these areas, the combination of long-ingrained poverty and petty criminality spawns a defiant sense of local identity that can easily be channeled against selected outsiders (assisted by strategic infusions of cash).
Gangsters usually don't deign to wear uniforms -- but this can be an advantage to a government that wants to disassociate itself from the violence stirred up by its proxies. "They [the Egyptian baltageya] can easily be mistaken for ordinary civilians," says Iskandar. "The whole idea is that this is supposed to look like civilian-on-civilian violence, so that the state isn't directly implicated." In Iran, the basij wear uniforms or not as the occasion demands, a calculated ambiguity designed to keep opponents off balance. (Dissidents victimized by anonymous attackers can only suspect government involvement.)
The Syrian militiamen, who cultivate a gangsta ethos through a shared culture of bodybuilding, long beards, and tattoos, are certainly much more conspicuous, and take an ostentatious pride in their own penchant for violence. Even so, their mix-and-match dress code (white athletic shoes are a trademark) makes it hard to distinguish them from the equally motley rebels, giving Assad's government an element of deniability that his allies in Moscow and Beijing are only too happy to exploit.
By now, the fate of the shabiha is inextricably linked with that of their patron Assad. If he somehow manages to survive the current unrest, his thugs are likely to emerge from the fray energized and empowered. But if his regime should fall, the Alawite militias will be the first to feel the wrath of the country's long-suppressed majority.
Thugs, in general, make excellent scapegoats. A few months ago the post-revolutionary government in Cairo issued an "anti-baltageya law" that essentially suspends even the most minimal protections for anyone suspected of membership in "gangs." The problem is that the lawmakers never troubled to define what constitutes a "gang" -- leading civil rights activists to worry that the powers-that-be can all too easily deploy the law against random political enemies.
For the moment, though, many of the real baltageya seem to have weathered Hosni Mubarak's end relatively well. Crime rates have risen sharply in Egypt since the revolution, and many of the same people who once terrorized anti-government protestors are finding new jobs as bodyguards and drivers for the anxiously wealthy. This should not really come as a surprise. In the Middle East, especially, a thug's work is never done.