Since the anti-government demonstrations erupted in mid-March, Syria's ghost network of Alawite gangs - the Shabbiha - have emerged from the shadows, instilling fear in a fearful nation.
Syrian regime has raised 'ghosts' that will not go away
Have you ever seen a ghost? For Syrians, a black Mercedes SL500 speeding down the street means you may indeed have seen the Shabbiha, the militias that have taken their name from the Arabic word for ghost.
Stolen Mercedes have become a symbol for the notorious Alawite gangs, which are increasingly becoming known as enforcers for President Bashar al Assad, who belongs to the same religious minority. The Assad regime has always been dominated by Alawites, the largest religious minority in Syria who make up about 15 per cent of the population, but in the recent months of protests the Shabbiha militias have been accused of killing and torturing thousands of protesters, and even ethnic cleansing.
Prior to the protests, the Shabbiha were ragtag Alawite militias loyal to different families in the western coastal region. They are mainly based in the Assads' birthplace of Qerdaha on the Mediterranean Sea, and have thrived on smuggling drugs, weapons and tobacco along the Lebanese, Jordanian and Iraqi borders. But since the anti-government demonstrations erupted in mid-March, the groups have been united to work closely with the military.
"During the protests, the regime has adopted the Shabbiha as a force to accompany the army and the security forces and do the dirty work," said Burhan Ghalioun, a Syrian professor at the Université de Paris III. "In other words, they are death squads and the striking arm against protesters."
In three months of crackdowns on protests, the number of fatalities has exceeded 1,000. The Assad regime, which since 2005 had been balanced between cosmetic reforms and the rule of fear, now is kept in power largely by outright repression. The question is not just if it will lose its grip, but whether the wounds caused by the Shabbiha will ever heal.
From the outset it seemed obvious that the regime wanted to place the Shabbiha in the forefront of the violence - and to be visible in its repression. One month into protests, for example, Shabbiha members filmed themselves humiliating protesters in the coastal city of Bayda. The video, which was first aired on YouTube, shows men with AK47s carrying out systematic beatings. One man, who is identified by his fellows as "Ali Abbas", tells another to kick a protester while shouting "traitors, dogs".
The video was rebroadcast by both anti-regime activists and Syrian state-run TV, although the latter claimed that the footage was filmed in Iraq. But any Syrian would know by the mens' regional dialect and dress that they were western Syrians, and suspect at least that they were Alawite militia members.
By filming their repression, which is then broadcast on state-run TV, the Shabbiha seems to be sending a twofold message: Alawites, you must be with us whether you like it or not; and all other Syrians, we have unleashed the Shabbiha. The regime has invested in the fear inspired by the group to stay in power.
Their origins as a criminal organisation have always been tied to the regime. Formed in the 1990s by a cousin of the former president Hafiz al Assad, the Shabbiha became known for car theft and extorting businessmen. Over time their numbers increased (now the estimates vary between 20,000 to 60,000 fighters) and they have diversified into providing protection to officials and smuggling. While Hafiz al Assad gave them some free rein to ensure their loyalty, under the current president they have become too powerful to control. Their robberies and murders have become bedtime stories in Syria.
As the security forces become more brutal in suppressing protesters, the image of the Shabbiha is invariably invoked. They are seen as the most vicious, informal arm of the regime. Last month the death of Hamza al Khatib, a 13-year-old boy from Deraa, was evidence of a new extreme; the boy's body showed signs of extreme torture, even genital mutilation, when it was returned to his family. The pathological sadism is associated in many Syrians' minds with the Shabbiha, and anti-regime activists and Hamza's family both blamed the group for the boy's death. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the Assad regime's near-total silence seemed to confirm suspicions.
The government usually blames such atrocities on unspecified "armed groups". This is often seen as a cover, with the armed groups believed to be the Shabbiha, and the regime using the justification for further repression. Hundreds of soldiers and policemen, and in many cases activists claim that the Shabbiha killed soldiers because they refused to obey orders.
For the time being, the anger that is boiling over is channelled against the regime, a tide that shows no sign of abating. But if the regime falls, these open displays of sectarian repression will not be forgotten.
The fear is that the aggrieved will look towards the Alawites, guilty or innocent. Already angry protesters in the city of Banyas shout: "We'll send the Alawites to their coffins." But while the Assads and many of their supporters are Alawites, there are 1.4 million members of the religious minority in the country. The majority of them are underprivileged and live in poverty.
The Shabbiha's open involvement in atrocities across Syria is not just criminal, but a strategic mistake. The reign of terror cannot last and Syrian military officers will eventually revolt. It remains to be seen whether rising anti-Alawite sentiments lead to reprisals, but it is yet another crime the Assads have committed. This time, it is against their own Alawite minority.