Shabiha (Levantine Arabic: شَبِّيحَة Šabbīḥa, pronounced [ʃabˈbiːħa]; also romanized Shabeeha or Shabbiha'; (meaning "ghosts") is a term for state sponsored militias of the Syrian government. However, in the Aleppo Governorate the term Shabiha is used frequently to refer to pro-Assad Sunni tribes such as al-Berri, al-Baggara, al-Hasasne and al-Zeido.[7] In the city of Aleppo itself it was led by the powerful Sunni Arab al-Berri tribe.[8] The word became common in the 90s, when it was being used to refer to "thugs" who work with the government and often drove Mercedes S class and gave their guards the same car; That specific car model was nicknamed Shabah (Ghost) in many Arabic countries which led to its drivers being called Shabeeh [9] The Syrian opposition stated that the shabiha are a tool of the government for cracking down on dissent.[10] The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has stated that some of the shabiha are mercenaries.[10]

LeadersFawaz al-Assad[1]
Mundhir al-Assad[1]
Numeir al-Assad[2]
Zaino Berri  Executed (Aleppo leader)[3]
Ayman Jaber (Latakia leader)
Mohammed al-Assad  (Qardaha leader)
Dates of operation1980s – 2012[4]
Allegiance Syria
Allies Syria
OpponentsSyria Free Syrian Army
Ahrar al-Sham
Al-Nusra Front
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
Battles and warsBattle of Aleppo (2012–2016)
Battle of Tremseh[6]

Before the Syrian civil warEdit

According to defectors privately interviewed by The Star in 2012, 'Shabiha mercenaries' were established in the 1980s by Rifaat al-Assad and Namir al-Assad, President Hafez al-Assad's brother and cousin.[11] They were originally concentrated in the Mediterranean region of Syria around Latakia, Banias and Tartous, where they allegedly benefited from smuggling through the ports in the area.[10] The shabiha, who were named for the Arabic word for ghost or for the Mercedes S600 that was popular for its smuggling sized trunk and was called the Shabah,[11] were known by the Alawites in Syria as Alawi ganglords.[12][13] During the late 1980s and early 1990s, they smuggled food, cigarettes and commodities, subsidized by the government, from Syria into Lebanon and sold them for a massive profit, while luxury cars, guns and drugs were smuggled in reverse from Lebanon up the Bekaa Valley and into Syria's state controlled economy.[11]

The shabiha guards, who each had loyalty to different members of the extended Assad family, were untouchable and operated with impunity from the local authorities.[11] They gained notoriety in the 1990s for the brutal way they enforced their protection rackets in Latakia and were noted for their cruelty and blind devotion to their leaders.[14] By the mid-1990s, they had gotten out of hand, and President Hafez Assad had his son Basil Assad clamp down on them, which he did successfully.[11] In 2000, when Bashar Assad came to power, they were apparently disbanded,[14] but following the uprising that began in March 2011, the shabiha gangs, which evolved into the shabiha militias, were again approved by Assad's government.[13]

Syrian Civil WarEdit

Berri clan militiamen, considered to be "Shabiha", after their capture by the al-Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo, July 2012

During the war, the shabiha have been accused by Syrian locals and the foreign press of attacking and killing protesters.[15] In March 2011, activists reported that Shabiha drove through Latakia in cars armed with machine guns firing at protesters, and then later of taking up sniper position on rooftops and killing up to 21 people.[14] It was reported by local activists that on 18 and 19 April that the shabiha and security forces killed 21 protesters in Homs.[16]

In May, Foreign Affairs reported that the shabiha joined the Fourth Division and attacked civilians in the cities of Banias, Jableh, and Latakia."[17] A month later in June, witnesses and refugees from the northwestern region said that the shabiha have reemerged during the uprising and were being used by the Syrian government to carry out "a scorched earth campaign […] burning crops, ransacking houses and shooting randomly."[18] The Washington Post reported a case in which four sisters were raped by shabiha members.[19] They are described to wear civilian clothes, trainers and white running shoes and often are taking steroids. A physician explained that "many of the men were recruited from bodybuilding clubs and encouraged to take steroids. They are treated like animals, and manipulated by their bosses to carry out these murders".[12]

Many shabiha were described by locals as having shaved heads, thin beards and white trainers. It was also reported by Syrian locals that some elements in the Shabiha were contemplating plans to clear Sunni Muslim villages from the Alawi northwest in the hopes of creating an easily defendable rump state.[20] One militiaman said he was ready to kill women and children to defend his friends, family and president: "Sunni women are giving birth to babies who will fight us in years to come, so we have the right to fight anyone who can hurt us in the future".[21]

In July 2012, a captured alleged shabiha member admitted looting and murder, stating that it was for "money and power".[22] The Toronto Star describes Shahiba as "mafia militia […] smuggling commodities, appliances, drugs and guns between Syria and Lebanon at the behest of Assad’s extended family" and the Telegraph as "a group that suffers from a dangerous cocktail of religious indoctrination, minority paranoia and smuggler roots".[11]

In December 2012, NBC News reporter Richard Engel and his five crew members were abducted in Latakia. Having escaped after five days in captivity, Engel held a Shabiha group responsible for the abduction.[23] Engel's account was however challenged from early on.[24] More than two years later, following further investigation by The New York Times, it however came out that the NBC team "was almost certainly taken by a Sunni criminal element affiliated with the Free Syrian Army," rather than by a loyalist Shia group.[25]

Alleged role in Houla massacreEdit

On May 25, 2012, 78 people, including 49 children, were killed in two opposition-controlled villages in the Houla Region of Syria, a cluster of villages north of Homs.[26] While a small proportion of the deaths appeared to have resulted from artillery and tank rounds used against the villages, the foreign press later announced that most of the massacre's victims had been "summarily executed in two separate incidents",[27] and that witnesses affirmed that the Shabiha were the most likely perpetrators.[26] Townspeople described how Shabiha, from Shia/Alawite villages to the south and west of Houla (Kabu and Felleh were named repeatedly), entered the town after shelling of the ground for several hours. According to one eyewitness, the killers had written Shia slogans on their foreheads.[28] The U.N. reported that "entire families were shot in their houses",[26] and video emerged of children with their skulls split open.[29] Others had been shot or knifed to death, some with their throats cut.[30]

The fifteen nations of the U.N. Security Council unanimously condemned the massacre,[31][32] with Russia and China agreeing to a resolution on the Syrian Civil War for the first time.[33] The U.S., U.K., and eleven other nations–the Netherlands, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Bulgaria, Canada and Turkey–jointly expelled Syrian ambassadors and diplomats already 4 days after the massacre took place.[34][35]

The German newspaper FAZ published findings in June 2012, that the Houla massacre has been perpetrated by rebellious groups antagonistic to the Syrian government.[36]

Alleged role in Al-Qubair massacreEdit

Another massacre was reported but not investigated by local villagers and activists to have taken place in the Syrian settlement of Al-Qubair on June 6, 2012, only two weeks after the killings at Houla. According to BBC News, Al-Qubair is a farming settlement inside the village of Maarzaf.[37]

According to activists, 28 people were killed, many of them women and children. The day after the massacre, UNSMIS observers attempted to enter Al-Qubair to verify the reports, but were fired upon and forced to retreat by Sunni armed militia that have entered the city the day before.[37] Victims were reportedly stabbed and shot by shabiha forces loyal to the government of Bashar al-Assad, according to the victim's families.[38][39][40]


In the coastal region, the group is reportedly led by Fawaz al-Assad and Munzer al-Assad, first cousins of President Assad.[17] Another source, Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, has been quoted as saying that "most Syrians view" the Shabiha as "operating without any known organization or leadership."[10] Sunni and Alawite businessmen who are protecting their own interests in the country are alleged to be paying the groups.[41]

Accusation of looting and outside analysisEdit

Aron Lund, a Swedish journalist specializing in Middle East issues, says that post-2011 the term "Shabbiha" is generally used as a generalized, insulting description of an Assad supporter.[42]

British newspaper Sunday Times and pan-Arab network Al-Arabiya have reported on Shabiha militia stealing Roman antiquities and selling them on the black market in Syria and Lebanon.[43]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Cooper (2015), p. 20.
  2. ^ Dougherty, Jill (9 August 2012). "Al-Assad's inner circle, mostly family, like 'mafia'". CNN. Retrieved 18 August 2012.
  3. ^ "Executions Reported as Syria Civilian Crisis Looms". Wall Street Journal. 1 August 2012. Retrieved 26 May 2013.
  4. ^ "Insight: Battered by war, Syrian army creates its own replacement". Reuters. 21 April 2013. Retrieved 31 October 2015.
  5. ^ Cooper (2015), p. 21.
  6. ^ "Syrian Army Denies Using Heavy Artillery in Tremesh Assault". ABC News Radio. July 16, 2012. Archived from the original on November 26, 2012. Retrieved August 9, 2018.
  7. ^ Brown Moses Blog: Aleppo – Zaino Berri, Shabiha Leader, Captured And Executed
  8. ^ Sunni Shabbiha
  9. ^ word origin
  10. ^ a b c d Razzouk, Nayla; Alexander, Caroline (1 June 2011). "Syrian Thugs Are Assad's Tool in Protest Crackdown, Groups Say". Bloomberg Businessweek. Archived from the original on October 22, 2013. Retrieved 29 May 2012.
  11. ^ a b c d e f Hugh Macleod and Annasofie Flamand (15 June 2012). "Inside Syria's shabiha death squads". Global Star. Toronto Star Newspapers Ltd.
  12. ^ a b Harriet Alexander, and Ruth Sherlock (2 June 2012). "The Shabiha: Inside Assad's death squads". The Telegraph. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  13. ^ a b Michael Peel and Abigail Fielding-Smith (2 June 2012). "Shoes Give Clue to Houla Assailants". The Financial Times. Retrieved 2 June 2012.
  14. ^ a b c Adrian Blomfield (27 March 2011). "Syria: feared militia kills up to 21 people as protests continue". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 30 May 2012.
  15. ^ Luke Harding, Julian Borger and agencies in Damascus (15 August 2012). "Houla killings: UN blames Syria troops and militia". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 2013-09-03.
  16. ^ "Syria's President ends state of emergency". Buenos Aires Herald. Reuters. 21 April 2011. Retrieved 30 May 2012.
  17. ^ a b Ahed Al Hendi (3 May 2011). "The Structure of Syria's Repression". Foreign Affairs. Retrieved 30 May 2012.
  18. ^ "Syria forces storm border town – witnesses". Euronews. 19 June 2011. Retrieved 30 May 2012.
  19. ^ Gul Tuysuz (21 June 2011). "Syrian men promise to marry women who were raped". The Washington Post. Retrieved 30 May 2012.
  20. ^ "With both barrels". The Economist. 16 June 2012.
  21. ^ Macleod, Hugh; Flamand, Annasofie (15 June 2012). "Syria: Shabiha Militia Member Tells It Like It Is". NewsHour. PBS. Archived from the original on July 6, 2012. Retrieved 6 July 2012.
  22. ^ Confessions of an Assad ‘Shabiha’ loyalist: how I raped and killed for £300 a month
  23. ^ Brian Stelter; Sebnem Arsu (18 December 2012), "Richard Engel of NBC Is Freed in Syria", The New York Times, retrieved 8 December 2015
  24. ^ Jamie Dettmer (22 December 2012). "Richard Engel's Kidnapping: A Behind the Scenes Look". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 8 December 2015.
  25. ^ Ravi Somaiya; C. J. Chivers; Karam Shoumali (15 April 2015). "NBC News Alters Account of Correspondent's Kidnapping in Syria". Retrieved 8 December 2015.
  26. ^ a b c Nebehay, Stephanie (May 29, 2012). "Most Houla victims killed in summary executions: U.N." Reuters. Archived from the original on May 30, 2012. Retrieved May 29, 2012.
  27. ^ "Syria crisis: Most Houla victims 'were executed'". BBC News. May 29, 2012. Archived from the original on May 30, 2012. Retrieved May 29, 2012.
  28. ^ Thomson, Alex (May 30, 2012). "The searing grief of Houla's Survivors". Channel 4 News. Archived from the original on May 30, 2012. Retrieved May 30, 2012.
  29. ^ "U.N. observers in Syria visit scene of Houla 'massacre:' state media". Al Arabiya. May 26, 2012. Archived from the original on May 26, 2012. Retrieved May 26, 2012.
  30. ^ Cockburn, Patrick (May 27, 2012). "Exclusive dispatch: Assad blamed for massacre of the innocents". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on May 26, 2012. Retrieved May 27, 2012.
  31. ^ "UN condemns Syria over Houla massacre". Al Jazeera. May 27, 2012. Archived from the original on May 28, 2012. Retrieved May 27, 2012.
  32. ^ MacFarquhar, Neil (May 27, 2012). "U.N. Security Council Issues Condemnation of Syria Attack". The New York Times. (part 1 of article). Archived from the original on May 28, 2012. Retrieved May 27, 2012.
  33. ^ "US hopes Syria massacre sparks change in Russia". Agence France-Presse. May 29, 2012. Archived from the original on May 30, 2012. Retrieved May 29, 2012.
  34. ^ "Several countries expel Syrian diplomats as EU mulls joint expulsion". Al Arabiya. May 29, 2012. Archived from the original on May 30, 2012. Retrieved May 29, 2012.
  35. ^ agencies. "Executions reported in Syria". Al Jazeera. Archived from the original on May 30, 2012. Retrieved May 30, 2012.
  36. ^ "Neue Erkenntnisse zu Getöteten von Hula; von Rainer Hermann, Damaskus". Frankfurter Allgemeine (in German). 7 June 2012.
  37. ^ a b "Syria UN team 'shot at' near Qubair 'massacre site'". BBC News. 7 June 2012. Retrieved 7 June 2012. Qubair is a small farming settlement inside the Sunni Muslim village of Maarzaf, which lies close to Alawite villages.
  38. ^ "New 'massacre' reported in Syria's Hama province". BBC News. 7 June 2012. Retrieved 7 June 2012.
  39. ^ "New Syria 'Massacre' Claims Emerge From Hama". Sky News. 7 June 2012. Archived from the original on June 7, 2012. Retrieved 7 June 2012.
  40. ^ "Opposition claim Syrian government 'massacre'". Deutsche Welle. 7 June 2012. Retrieved 7 June 2012.
  41. ^ Peter Kellier (pn) (1 June 2012). "Ghosts of Syria:diehard militias who kill in the name of Assad". Guardian. London.
  42. ^ "Gangs Of Latakia: The Militiafication Of The Assad Regime". Eurasia Review. 30 July 2013. Archived from the original on October 13, 2013. Retrieved 30 July 2013.
  43. ^ الشبيحة ينهبون آثار سوريا ويبيعونها في السوق السوداء – quoting Hala Jaber; George Arbuthnott (5 May 2013). "Syrians loot Roman treasures to buy guns". The Syrian Times. Retrieved 26 June 2013.

Works citedEdit

External linksEdit