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Shabiha


Note: This is not the official flag of the Shabiha, but rather a reproduction containing the flag of Syria (as this is the country they are active in).


Introduction & Overview The Shabiha are loosely associated militias with criminal characteristics which have operated on the pro-Assad side during the Syrian Civil War. Drawing on a history of mafia-like criminal enterprise, the Shabiha proved to be fundamental for the pro-Assad Syrian government, especially during the early phases of the war, as it struggled to maintain support in many regions. These criminal elements therefore evolved from a crime syndicate in the 1960s into militias that keep the populace in line.

History & Foundations The term Shabiha is of controversial origin. Some ascribe it to Shabah (ghost), others to Shabaha (the act of ripping something apart) (1). Regardless, their members were originally smugglers and gangsters based in the coastal and mountainous areas of Syria, particularly around Latakia (2). These individuals generally belonged to the Alawite minority, which has historically been discriminated against both socially and politically. Up until the 1960s, they had little opportunities other than joining the military or engaging in criminal activities (3). In 1963, the Syrian Baath Party came to power through a coup, which was followed by a series of conflicts and further coups against opposing factions inside the new regime. In 1970, Hafez al-Assad and his faction in the Syrian military were able to oust opponents and gained power unopposed. Under the new leadership, the role of ethnic Alawites in key posts in the Syrian state gradually grew. The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) was an extremely lucrative affair for the Shabiha, since they made a regular business out of the need to smuggle wares, weapons, and people across the Syrian-Lebanese border (4). During this time, their influence on popular culture increased, when the term Shabah came to indicate the Shabiha’s favourite vehicle, a Mercedes S-600 (5). Between 1979 and 1982, the Shabiha were deployed by the Assads against the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist insurgency. It was during this time that the Shabiha participated in brutal operations, such as the Tadmor Prison massacre in 1980, and the massacre of Hama in 1982 (6). It is especially notable that by this time, Rifaat al-Assad, Syria’s leader Hafez al-Assad’s brother, was considered a major leader of the Shabiha, and his private militia (the “Defence Brigades”) may have been composed of many Shabiha members (7). When Rifaat fell in disgrace following an attempted coup in 1984, the Shabiha lost some of their power. During the 1990s, the Syrian government started cracking down on the Shabiha, with a major push for the repression coming from Bassel al-Assad. (8)(9) For instance, the 1999 Latakia incident is generally understood to be a final showdown between Rifaat’s remaining power base and the rest of the Assad family (10). After Bassel’s death, Bashar and Maher al-Assad continued the repression of the Shabiha throughout the 2000s, forcing them to return to clandestine, criminal activity after they had lost their political power (11). The outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 plunged the country into chaos. This situation contributed to the partial disintegration of the Syrian Arab Army, and at the same time, the proliferation of informal or self-organized armed groups on the side of the regime, such as the Popular Committees (12). During this phase, the Shabiha were reorganized with the support of the Mukhabarat (Syrian security services), and they swiftly started their brutal retaliation against opponents of the regime (13). As the war continued, the Shabiha were able to receive increasing levels support from the Syrian state, and some of their members also went on to join the National Defence Forces, another state-sponsored militia which was created in order to rein in the Shabiha. (14)(15) The new wartime role of the Shabiha did not mean that common criminal activity and racketeering has ceased, and this has even led to confrontations between the Shabiha, the regular army and the Mukhabarat.

Ideology & Objectives The Shabiha have little ideological connotations, other than a tribalistic loyalty to the Assad family and, more loosely, to Alawite areas as their powerbase. Originating from organized crime and racketeering, they are mainly motivated by the predatory opportunities of the Syrian Civil War, and they do not hesitate in inflicting any sort of atrocity on the populace, whether this is ordered by the Syrian regime or not.

The Shabiha are known to loot and ransack areas which have been recently (re-)taken by the Syrian Arab Army (17). They also take possession of abandoned housing and apartments, often kicking out even legitimate tenants (18). Prostitution is another business where the Shabiha are often active (19).

Political/Military Abilities & Alliances They are usually employed by the regime in rear guard and repression activities in the areas where the population is deemed unreliable (20). If required to join offensive operations, they are theoretically bound to the Syrian military hierarchy, but in reality, each Shabiha detachment only answers to their own commander (21). Moreover, their armament is not standardized and can vary. The Shabiha are a borderline entity, and exist at the intersection of security services, military, and organized crime (22). They are able to thrive in the institutional and military chaos that is immanent in Syria, and act within the regime’s mandate and against it alike, according to their own local interests (23). The Shabiha are known to entertain relations with Hezbollah, which provides them with regular and specialized military training (24). Iran also has ties to some Shabiha groups (25).

Works Cited (Chicago-style)

(1) - Cfr. López-Rodríguez Pulido, G. Shabiha: Del crimen organizado a la violencia política en Siria. In: Análisis GESI, 39, 2016. Available at: https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=5760876&orden=0&info=link (last consulted: 09.03.2023)


(2) - Cfr. Carey, S. Shabiha (Syria). In: Carey, S.., & Neil, J. M.. 2022. Pro-Government Militias Database (PGMD) Version 2.1 Codebook, University of Mannheim. Available at: https://militias-guidebook.com/pgag/466/


(3) - Cfr. López-Rodríguez Pulido, G. Shabiha: Del crimen organizado a la violencia política en Siria. Cit.


(4) - Ibidem.


(5) - Ibidem.


(6) - Cfr. Al-Haj Salih, Y. The Syrian Shabiha and Their State - Statehood & Participation. In: Heinrich Böll Stiftung Beirut. 2014. Available at: lb.boell.org/en/2014/03/03/syrian-shabiha-and-their-state-statehood-participation


(7) - Ibidem.


(8) - Cfr. Carey, S. Shabiha (Syria). Cit.


(9) - Cfr. López-Rodríguez Pulido, G. Shabiha: Del crimen organizado a la violencia política en Siria. Cit.


(10) - Cfr. Ibidem.


(11) - Ibidem.


(12) - Cfr. Khaddour, K. Assad's Officer Ghetto: Why the Syrian Army remains loyal. In: Carnegie Middle East Center, 04.11.2015. Available at: https://carnegie-mec.org/2015/11/04/assad-s-officer-ghetto-why-syrian-army-remains-loyal-pub-61449


(13) - Cfr. López-Rodríguez Pulido, G. Shabiha: Del crimen organizado a la violencia política en Siria. Cit.


(14) - Ibidem.


(15) - Cfr. AA. VV. Il ruolo degli Shabiha in Siria. In: Invisible Dog - Investigative Journalism, 78, 2018. Available at: www.invisible-dog.com/shahiba_ita.html


(16) - Cfr. López-Rodríguez Pulido, G. Shabiha: Del crimen organizado a la violencia política en Siria. Cit.


(17) - Cfr. AA. VV. Residents of Aleppo fear “shabiha”militia are targeting their homes and properties. In: Enab Baladi, 24.01.2020. Available at: https://english.enabbaladi.net/archives/2020/01/residents-of-aleppo-fear-shabihamilitia-are-targeting-their-homes-and-properties/


(18) - AA. VV. Shabiha Put their Hands on Homes in Aleppo. In: Enab Baladi, 17.07.2017. Available at: english.enabbaladi.net/archives/2017/07/shabiha-put-hands-homes-aleppo/

(19) - Cfr. Al-Naqri, H. Parks of Syria have become “brothels and dens of homosexuality” under the control of the “Shabiha". In: Enab Baladi, 26.06.2016. Available at: english.enabbaladi.net/archives/2016/06/parks-syria-become-brothels-dens-homosexuality-control-shabiha/

(20) - Cfr. López-Rodríguez Pulido, G. Shabiha: Del crimen organizado a la violencia política en Siria. Cit.

(21) - Cfr. AA. VV. Il ruolo degli Shabiha in Siria. Cit.

(22) - Cfr. Al-Haj Salih, Y. The Syrian Shabiha and Their State - Statehood & Participation. Cit.

(23) - Cfr. AA. VV. Aleppo: Military Security takes charge of “security chaos” control. In: Enab Baladi, 18.04.2022. Available at: english.enabbaladi.net/archives/2022/04/aleppo-military-security-takes-charge-of-security-chaos-control/

(24) - Cfr. Misto, M. & Ozcan E. E. Hezbollah trains pro-Assad regime Shabiha militants. In: Anadolu Agency, 29.03.2021. Available at: www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/hezbollah-trains-pro-assad-regime-shabiha-militants/2191746

(25) - AA. VV. Il ruolo degli Shabiha in Siria. In: Invisible Dog - Investigative Journalism, 78, 2018. Available at: www.invisible-dog.com/shahiba_ita.html

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