As the death toll mounts in Syria, attention falls on the shadowy paramilitary gangs now implicated in some of the country's worst massacres, writes TIME magazine's Rania Abouzeid.
The details of the recent massacres in the Syrian district of Houla and the farming hamlet of Mazraat al-Qubeir were bloodcurdling: children shot at point-blank, throats slit, skulls crushed, entire families gunned down in their homes, the stench of charred human flesh, the paucity of survivors. The dead have been buried, but the question remains: Who could do this? Who could commit what United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon described as "unspeakable barbarity?" "Not even a monster," insisted Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. But what about a shabih?
The Shabiha–the plural of the word shabih–along with uniformed elements of the security forces, were blamed by many observers and witnesses for both massacres (some regime sources, however, say that rebels had a hand in the killings). In an increasingly bloody 15-month crisis the Shabiha have become increasingly prominent as irregular paramilitary troops, regime enforcers, the go-to guys when the going gets tough and bloody.
Their origins go back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Bashar Assad's father and uncles ran the country. Bashar's father Hafez Assad was president, his brother Rifaat had a pivotal role in the security forces while his other brother Jamil was setting up and consolidating his shadowy business dealings, which allegedly included drug trafficking and weapons smuggling, according to Radwan Ziadeh, a longtime member of the Syrian opposition. The gangs, initially drawn from the Assads' own extended family and from their Alawite sect, were described as mafia enforcers. "They made their living from smuggling (electrical goods, tobacco, drugs, alcohol, antiquities, etc.) and imposing 'taxes' (extortion)," Syrian writer Yassin al-Haj Salih said in a recent report published in Germany. "They were noted for their brutality and cruelty and their blind devotion to their leaders."