Syrian Thugs Are Assad’s Tool in Protest Crackdown, Groups Say

Syrian protest
Members of the Syrian opposition protest against President Bashar Assad after their meetings in the Turkish coastal city of Antalya on June 2, 2011. Photographer: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

Syria’s crackdown on anti-government demonstrations reached Bushra’s street on the evening of May 11.

There was a commotion outside her house, yet the 38-year-old mother of three said she didn’t dare do more than peek from behind her curtains to see what was happening. Men in civilian clothes dragged a neighbor through his front door by the hair, beat him to the ground and threw him into their van. He hasn’t been seen since, a victim of the Shabeeha, Bushra said, using a Syrian term for thugs associated with the regime.

Bushra and her husband fled with their children, joining hundreds of residents of the town of Tal Kalakh who crossed the slippery rocks of a river to reach Lebanon, where they are being hosted by villagers. Bushra, whose given name is being withheld for her protection, declined to give the names of her family or her neighbor for fear of Shabeeha reprisals. Civilians are the majority of about 1,100 people who have died or gone missing in more than two months of unrest, human rights groups say.

The outsourcing of repression to gangs such as the Shabeeha has been used by Arab regimes as a tool to try to quell the pro-democracy protests that have swept the Middle East and North Africa since the start of the year, the rights groups and analysts said. The dissent unseated the longstanding rulers of Tunisia and Egypt and threatens the leaders of Libya and Yemen.

“It is not unique to Syria, it is a widespread practice within the Middle East in the current wave of demonstrations,” Maha Abu Shama, a researcher at Amnesty International, said in a telephone interview from London. She counted Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan among the most frequent users of thugs.

Coastal Origins

The Shabeeha had been concentrated in the Mediterranean region around Latakia, Banias and Tartous, where they benefit from smuggling through the ports in the area, Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said in a phone interview from the Syrian capital, Damascus. With the outbreak of unrest this year, they have been used to suppress dissent in the inland regions, in cities such as Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, and in border areas such as Tal Kalakh, near Lebanon, and Daraa, close to Jordan, he said.

Most Syrians view the Shabeeha as frightening groups operating without any known organization or leadership, he said.

“The Shabeeha include local criminal gangs, members of the security forces in civilian clothes, informants or simply unemployed and impoverished youths,” Merhi said. “This is the first time that they have been used in such an organized manner by the regime.”

Sectarian Strife

Rights groups also accuse the regime of using the Shabeeha to pit communities against each other to create a fear that prompts citizens to turn to the government for stability. Although Shabeeha members are found across sectarian lines, most are from the Alawite community, a Shiite Muslim offshoot to which President Bashar al-Assad and most top security officials belong.

The Shabeeha, comprising people close to the regime as well as mercenaries, have tried to foment divisions between the Alawites and the Sunni Muslim majority, and between Muslims and Christians, according to Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights.

“They’re not afraid to use force, violence, weapons, racketeering and blackmail,” Qurabi said by telephone from Cairo. “That way, the regime will remain clean and will say: ‘Look these are gangs doing this, not us.’”

Syria’s violent suppression of demonstrations led the U.S. and European Union to impose sanctions. The EU on May 23 released a list of Syrians targeted in a travel ban and asset freeze. They include Fawwaz al-Assad and Munzir al-Assad, cousins of the president, who are alleged by the EU to be “involved in the repression against the civilian population as members of the Shabeeha.”

Telephone calls seeking comment from government spokesmen on the use of the Shabeeha weren’t answered.

GDP to Fall

In December, before the protests began, the International Monetary Fund forecast that Syria’s economy would grow 5.5 percent this year. Last week, the Economist Intelligence Unit in London forecast that Syrian gross domestic product for 2011-2012 would fall to 3.4 percent.

Syrian authorities have blamed foreign-led “terrorist gangs” and Islamists for the violence. Assad initially promised reforms in response to the protests. Those pledges haven’t been repeated as the crackdown has intensified, with the lifting of a 48-year-old emergency rule in April followed within days by the deployment of tanks to quell demonstrations in Daraa.

The authorities’ use of torture behind closed doors in many Middle East and North African countries has been documented for years by Amnesty and New York-based Human Rights Watch. The abuses became public as the regimes unleashed violent gangs to put down the unprecedented street protests by people seeking wider freedoms.

Beatings, Seizures

“They grab the men, they beat them, they insult them, they humiliate them and then they take them away,” Bushra said by telephone from Lebanon. “If they don’t find anyone at home, they break the door and then the furniture and everything inside.”

Iran, an ally of Syria, called in its Basij group to help quash anti-government protests after the presidential election of 2009. Basiji violence against Iranian protesters was captured on mobile-phone cameras and transmitted beyond Iran.

In Egypt, international broadcasters were in place to air live images of an assault by the Baltagiya, a word for the local thugs, who rode camels to charge into demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, stomping and beating them.

Since January, the Internet has also been flooded with hastily shot videos showing groups of men beating and humiliating unarmed protesters in the capitals of Tunisia, Jordan and Bahrain, among others. Many of those videos couldn’t be authenticated. Amnesty is calling for the Syrian regime to grant them access to the country to investigate such reports.

Social Networking

Syrians have used social networking websites and phones to tell their story because local reporters operate under restriction and members of the foreign media attempting to report from Syria have been jailed or deported.

Syria last month cut communications lines and sealed the section of the border with Lebanon near Tal Kalakh. Local Lebanese officials in the area estimated May 20 that 3,500 Syrians refugees were being housed in their communities, Human Rights Watch said.

Bushra and her family have been left with no access to news on the fate of the town they left behind.

“We sit and watch television all day, desperate for news about Tal Kalakh,” she said. “We are scared to death for our families.”

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