Of all the pro-regime thugs in lead bad guy roles in the Arab revolutions, the Syrian Shabiha have probably -- and rightfully I may add -- earned the most notorious reputation.
Over the last four months they have proved to be more brutal, numerous, and efficient than any of their regional brethren, including Tunisia’s Bandias, Egypt’s Baltagiah, Yemen’s Balatga, Jordan’s Zu’ran or Libya’s mercenaries.
As one Syrian journalist from Latakiya told me, the Shabiha are at this point -- and by far -- more important to Bashar Assad’s regime than any other security forces, including the army.
There is a very logical argument to defend this opinion: The army is at the end of the day an official institution that could be held responsible, and hence accountable. But not the Shabiha.
They are a bunch of gangsters doing in broad daylight all the dirty jobs that official regime forces prefer not to be involved in – unless it is in a dark detention cells of security agencies, of course.
There is very little hope they would ever be brought to justice simply because they have no official records and no clear leadership despite their historic association with the nephews of the late President Hafez Al Assad and other families related to them like Shalish, Deeb and Makhlouf.
A shabiha by definition is primarily a macho with big muscles coming from a very poor background with very little - if any - education and preferably a very big appetite for crime.
They are far from being new to Syria, especially in coastal cities such as Latakiya, their stronghold, probably because of its proximity to Qurdaha, the hometown of the Assad clan.
They are outlaws who while being protected by their powerful sponsors, have been since the 1970s involved in all kind of illegal activities including drug and arms dealing, car theft and smuggling across the Lebanese and Turkish borders.
There are different stories behind their naming; one of the most commonly repeated says the name was derived from their driving of the then very expensive Mercedes, 230, 350 and 600 Models, locally known as the Shabah which translates into English as The Ghost.
Another story says they earned their name because of the fear and terror they caused attacking anyone who stood in their way in cities as they drove through in convoys of cars with black tinted windows, some of which were open enough to show their guns.
Though they have been keeping a low profile since the death of Hafez, the Shabiha have multiplied in numbers over the last few months.
A Syrian activist from Damascus tells me businessmen supporting the regime have been funding their recruitment in thousands to do “whatever needs to be done,” paying them up to a couple of hundred dollars, on daily basis. That’s in a country where the average income would be around $10 a day.
If in the past their recruitment was exclusive to the rejects from the Alawite sect, this is no longer true and they are now hired from all religions.
Their “job description” has also been expanded and their activities include murder and torture. One of the traditional “services” they provided was to collect, by intimidation and use of force, defaulted debts taking 50 percent of whatever they gathered.
Now they levy and collect taxes across coastal cities where shop owners are given the choice between keeping their businesses closed, or paying money that would be used to finance all the Minhibak or “We Love You” campaigns, covering the expenses of all the caps, T-shirts, oversized flags and posters of President Bashar Al Assad.
Some in Syria call them a modern militia, others consider them the “criminal arm of the regime.” To some they are bodyguards of wealthy businessmen, to others they are the mafia, and to many they are just another branch of the Syrian security agencies.
Most stories about them portrays them as brutal but amateur criminals; other stories however maintain that thousands of them have recently received military training in what’s called the camps of the national army.
If that story is right, it wouldn’t be the first time that the Assad regime created an un-official agency for its protection.
It is exactly for this reason – that is, primarily countering any attempted coups -- that the defense companies, or Saraya al Difaa, a paramilitary force controlled by Hafez’s brother Rifaat and organizationally independent from the regular armed forces was created in 1966. They were eventually merged into the Syrian army as the notorious Fourth Armored Division, now under the control of Maher Al Assad, Bashar’s brother. But that’s another story for another day.
Meanwhile, the regime in Syria could keep talking about alleged dialogue with the opposition. It could continue promoting stories about the divisions inside the family tying the hands of the President from proceeding with any real reforms.
Its media can go accusing infiltrators – Mundassin - of being behind the “unrest” in the country and its so-called politicians and so-called journalists could go on warning about civil war and the seizing of power of Salafis or Al Qaeda like terrorists. Its security agencies can continue killing children, torturing activists and arresting intellectuals. Its “spontaneous” supporters could once more attack Western embassies.
The regime could also continue to hide behind the Shabihas, which after four months of demonstrations it has started looking very much like it’s happening.
A regime with muscle, and nothing else.
Alia Ibrahim, Senior Correspondent for Al Arabiya TV, can be reached at: email@example.com