Reporters covering the ongoing popular revolt in Syria were recently introduced to a new term from the sociopolitical lexicon of the Levant—the shabbiha.
The shabbiha refers to a phenomenon originating in the coastal region of northwest Syria – where the ruling Alawite clan is from – and describes gangs of young thugs working for members of the Assad family, but in no official capacity. In recent days, these unofficial regime affiliates have played a central role in attacking opposition demonstrators in the coastal cities of Latakia, Banias, Tartous and Jable. And that is how the shabbiha appeared on the radar of reporters, Arab and Western alike, who scrambled to properly understand and explain its exact meaning.
The Saudi satellite station Al Arabiya led the way with a short segment introducing the shabbiha to its broader Arab viewers, most of whom are equally unfamiliar with this Levantine term and the specifically Syrian phenomenon it describes. The Al Arabiya reporter defined them as “gangs who consider themselves to be above the law, and who impose their authority by force and muscle”—a fairly accurate, but generic definition.
Attempting to dig deeper into the etymology of the term, the reporter speculated that the root of the term conjured the Arabic word for “ghost” (shabah), intimating the stealth with which these gangs appeared to wreak havoc at any particular moment. This false etymology was adopted by some Western reporters, but in reality, the etymology likely signifies someone with a “long reach”—that is to say, a license to pillage with impunity, with few constraints and little fear of legal repercussion. To them, all criminal activity is permissible, everything is there for the taking, and the shabbiha are entitled to it all.
As the Al Arabiya report explained: “members of these gangs derive this power from the absolute support they receive from powerful figures, especially those who are not visible at the political forefront of the country.”
The powerful figures in question belong to the extended Assad clan. During the days of Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad, one of the most notorious shabbiha gangs belonged to his brother, Jamil, and his sons, Munzir and Fawwaz. Nikolaos Van Dam notes in his excellent book on Syria how they were armed through the military units commanded by Hafez’s other brother, Rifaat, who in turn maintained his own gang, including among the small Alawite community in northern Lebanon.
They, and other shabbiha working for other members of the Assad clan, wreaked havoc in towns such as Latakia, the main city in an area where the Alawites are heavily concentrated, where they had free reign, treating it as their own personal patrimony.
Their criminal exploits were marked by typical mobster behavior, including extortion, assault, flaunting weapons and stolen cars, and private use of public property and roads, to name but a few. Their crime of choice was smuggling, especially Lebanese goods which they resold in Syria. During the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, the shabbiha operated particularly in the border region of the Bekaa, where they enjoyed the protection of the Syrian intelligence apparatuses, and the patronage of whatever Assad family member or regime big shot they worked for.
Various Alawite barons and their shabbiha fought over smuggling routes and rights—turf wars that continue to play out today. Often the sporadic crackdowns and arrests that the regime sells as part of Bashar’s reform program are nothing but evidence of how the regime fights over racketeering privileges and delineates the power hierarchy. For instance, in the late 1990s, as Bashar was paving the way for his inheritance of power, he began to curb the activity of his small time cousins and their shabbiha.
However, his cousins continue to exercise their perceived right to ransack at will. In 2006, an infamous security camera video emerged on YouTube showing one of Bashar’s second cousins, Numayr, as he robbed a currency exchange office at gunpoint and in broad daylight. He was briefly arrested, but broke out shortly thereafter and is now said to be living openly in Latakia. This is what the Assads are all about: a mob family operating at state level.
Today, the shabbiha realize that if they want to maintain their privilege, it’s time to serve the larger interests of the regime—as paramilitary mercenaries terrorizing peaceful protesters. Their unofficial status offers the regime a useful instrument—the shabbiha can kill and intimidate while Assad still has plausible deniability. Moreover, insofar as the shabbiha’s indiscriminate, drive-by-shooting-style violence is likely responsible for the deaths of policemen and soldiers (as Syrian activist Ammar Abdulhamid notes), the regime has used the confusion to label the protestors as the perpetrators of violence. Accordingly, shabbiha bloodshed, now attributed to the opposition, has become the Assad regime’s pretext for the full-blown military crackdown now underway in towns such as Banias, besieged by army tanks.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.