Regimes in the Middle East have used hired thugs in crackdowns for some time, as seen in Iran, Egypt and Libya. In Syria, the government of President Bashar al Assad has relied particularly heavily on a group of loyalist mercenaries known as the Shabiha. This reliance exposes the constraints faced by the Syrian military, which is dominated by the minority Alawite sect, in trying to put down the unrest, as well as the high level of sectarianism that continues to distinguish the Syrian conflict from other instances of regional unrest.
The Shabiha: Origin and Expansion
The Shabiha, which means "phantom-like," first appeared in 1976 when the Syrian army entered Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war. The group consisted of young, mostly Alawite men from the coastal Syrian cities of Latakia, Tartus and Banias, which have high concentrations of Alawites. Operating along the Syrian coast and across the Syrian-Lebanese borderland, the Shabiha were mostly involved in the smuggling and sale of stolen goods between Syria and Lebanon, while many also robbed households and warehouses.
The Shabiha grew in number in the 1980s after an unsuccessful 1983 coup attempt by Rifaat al Assad, the brother of late former Syrian President Hafez al Assad. In the wake of the failed coup, Rifaat's Defense Companies, an elite Alawite force of roughly 55,000 soldiers that led the 1982 massacre of Sunni protesters in Hama, and intelligence units loyal to him were dismantled, and Rifaat was stripped of power and later forced into exile. Many of the fighters from the defunct Defense Companies eventually joined the ranks of the Shabiha.
Currently the Shabiha have around 20,000 members, who are paid on average about $40 per day, according to Stratfor sources. Many of the Shabiha the Syrian regime has recruited to deal with the unrest were uneducated, unemployed youths or criminals released from prison on the condition that they would go to extreme lengths to demonstrate their loyalty to the regime, and most work for the regime on a part-time basis while working other menial jobs. However, some have also reportedly made their way into the Sunni business community in Damascus and Aleppo, where they perform a range of bureaucratic functions. Not all Shabiha are involved in security operations; a significant portion is involved in media operations to help the regime disseminate messages that portray the opposition fighting the army as militant jihadists.
According to accounts by opposition activists, journalists and human rights monitors, the Syrian regime will typically bus Shabiha in to the more restive urban areas of the country, such as Homs and Hama, the outskirts of Damascus and Aleppo, and the border cities of Daraa and Talkalakh. Once there, the Shabiha will go door to door assaulting, jailing or killing suspected opposition members — and their families, in some cases.
Most Shabiha operate in plainclothes, but more recently opposition members have described them as wearing newly manufactured police or black uniforms and carrying what appear to be new AK-47 assault rifles. These reports could not be confirmed, but it would not be surprising if the Syrian regime were investing extra money to formalize the Shabiha as one of its main lines of defense.
Iran and the Syrian Strategy
The al Assad regime's heavy reliance on the Shabiha is not a strategy that appears to have the full endorsement of Syria's main ally, Iran. According to a Stratfor source, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) helped train the Shabiha beginning in mid-March, when the first significant demonstrations broke out in Syria. Unlike Iran, which relied on young Basij militiamen — who had been strongly indoctrinated in religion and integrated into the formal security apparatus — to put down the so-called Green Revolution after the 2009 Iranian election controversy, Syria does not have well-trained militiamen at its disposal.
Iranian officials privately describe the Shabiha as unruly and grossly undisciplined. One Stratfor Iranian source labeled the Shabiha's use of violence as misguided and explained how the IRGC unsuccessfully attempted to convey to the Syrian militiamen that violence must be employed strategically so as to suppress and not proliferate unrest. The source's information suggests that the IRGC has concluded that the Shabiha could be doing more damage than good for the al Assad regime. For this reason, the source claims that the IRGC has given up on training the Shabiha and has instead deployed Hezbollah members to work with them and in some cases even defend Shabiha who have more recently become targets of attacks by the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Despite Iran's objections, the Syrian regime is unlikely to lessen its reliance on the Shabiha, primarily because of the sectarian environment in which the regime operates. Alawite officers, who are outnumbered by mostly low-to-mid-ranking Sunni conscript soldiers, dominate the Syrian military. Unwilling to fight against their coreligionists, many of the Sunni conscripts have deserted or defected to the Free Syrian Army. The regime crackdown has therefore been mostly led by all-Alawite forces, including the Republican Guard, Fourth Armored Division, the 14th and 15th Special Forces Divisions, riot police, Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, the General Intelligence Directorate, the National Security Bureau, Baath Party security, the Political Security Directorate and, of course, the Shabiha. The regime has meanwhile been extremely hesitant to deploy more demographically mixed army divisions, which would be more prone to splitting along sectarian lines and undermining the unity of the army overall. The regime's reluctance to fully employ its armed forces means it will continue to rely on mercenaries for reinforcement in the crackdowns.
The heavy use of Shabiha could also help the al Assad regime moderate its rapidly growing dependence on Iran, which has taken advantage of the political crisis to expand the IRGC's presence in Syria. Al Assad's strategy concerning the Shabiha may be far from perfect, but, given the constraints he faces, it is one that appears to be helping the regime hold the line against Syria's still-fractured opposition and maintain cohesion in the army overall.