Since the beginning of the popular unrest in Syria, the Al Assad regime has relied on a policy of confrontation and violence to suppress the protesters, no matter how high the human and political cost. One of the main pillars of this strategy of utilizing excessive violence is the pro-regime Shabiha militia. In other words, the use of a third party to assault and kill the protesters in the name of the regime, without the regime being directly involved.
It seems that we were naïve in failing to appreciate the magnitude of this phenomenon, or the extent to which the Syrian regime is depending on this militia to directly suppress the protesters on the ground. The Syrian regime has also utilized the “Shabiha strategy” in its political and media discourse against the protesters.
The "Shabiha" phenomenon is based on the idea of violently suppressing and killing the protesters in Syria, while trying to utilize the media in an attempt to counter the calls for freedom and the collapse of the regime. The “Shabiha” public opinion campaign – if we could call it that – is based on insults and incitement, rather than any logical or humane discussion.
This "Shabiha" media strategy has developed since the eruption of the protests in Syria thanks to private pro-regime Syrian and Lebanese media outlets. These media outlets have adopted the “Shabiha” strategy, inviting political and media guests whose sole objective is to issue insults, and provocation and who sometimes even openly call for the [Syrian] opposition to be eliminated. These figures play down the genuine suffering of the Syrian people and dismiss the blood which is being shed as mere collateral damage.
As for the internet, there is a war taking place between pro-revolutionary websites and internet groups and the online “Shabiha” the so-called “Syrian electronic army” that specializes in insulting the Syrian protesters, and those posting anti-regime stories and news.
The online “Shabiha” excels at insulting and inciting against those calling for political change in Syria, as well as re-posting the regime’s official accounts.
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, the “Shabiha” have pursued a policy of suppression and violence to confront the protests, or those holding sit-ins in solidarity with the Syrian people. They have drawn on Baathist and nationalist slogans in doing so.
This is something that could be seen during a Syrian opposition conference held in Antalya, Turkey, as well as the Syrian opposition meeting in Jordan two weeks ago. We saw a handful of pro-regime Syrian supports demonstrating outside of these meetings, and they also managed to prevent an anti-regime demonstration from taking place in Amman.
The most outrageous form of this “Shabiha” strategy can clearly be seen in Lebanon where protests organized in solidarity with the Syrian people have repeatedly been targeted. On one such occasion, the anti-regime protesters were attacked and beaten thanks to the absence of the Lebanese authorities that want to distance themselves from the incidents taking place in Syria. Even when a group of Lebanese activists staged a sit-in in central Beirut a few days ago to support Syria's uprising, a handful of "Shabiha" thugs attempted to target them. These incidents reveal how the Syrian regime has agents or proxies to assist it. The Syrian regime is utilizing the same principle with regards to the media, attempting to garner support for al-Assad and draw public opinion away from the Syrian opposition.
It is quite obvious that the task assigned to the “Shabiha” outside of Syria is nothing to do with what is happening inside Syria, but rather their task is to target Syrian sympathizers and cause them to fear that any rallies held in solidarity with the Syrian people will be subject to the same security “solutions” as those being employed by the regime against the Syrian protesters themselves.
Published in the London-based Asharq Alawsat on August 14, 2011.