Among the Alawites

Nir Rosen has witnessed the Syrian revolution from more vantage points and for longer on the ground than probably any other Western reporter. His latest report, appearing in the London Review of Books, is worth reading in full.

Here’s an excerpt: Alawites aren’t wrong to feel that for all the fury of its repression, the state is at a loss to know how to protect them. It is this feeling, above all, that has led to the growth of the increasingly powerful independent loyalist militias who act with impunity and often embarrass the regime. The militias have been responsible for several massacres in Homs and Hama, but Bashar is in no position to bear down on his most diehard supporters. An engineer in Homs, an Alawite who had joined the opposition, told me that the first time he saw loyalist gangs in action was in March 2011. ‘It was random and nobody organised them,’ he said. ‘They only had clubs. But by July they were organised. Now they work on their own account … The most dangerous thing in a civil war is the people who live off it and depend on it financially. I saw this in Lebanon. In Homs it’s open civil war.’

In the days of Hafez al-Assad the term shabiha, which means ‘ghosts’, referred only to organised criminals and smugglers who co-operated with the security forces. Some were part of the Assad clan – Bashar’s brother famously crushed and jailed elements of the Assad shabiha who got out of control – but by no means all were Alawites. When the uprising started, however, the word shabiha quickly came to refer to the loyalist militias, and in due course to any government loyalists. Soon many loyalists could be heard at pro-regime rallies directing chants at the opposition: ‘We are the shabiha! Screw your freedom! Shabiha for ever!’ There are thousands of shabiha, or popular committee members, in the Alawite neighbourhoods of Homs, a security officer told me. They are not paid for their militia activities, he said, but they continue to draw their government salaries even though they no longer go to work. They answer to local mayors. ‘They can arrest somebody from Khaldiyeh or Bayada,’ he said, naming two Sunni neighbourhoods, ‘and hand him over to security forces. They co-ordinate with security.’

The opposition engineer in Homs was more blunt: ‘A shabih is somebody who loves Bashar more than Bashar. A shabih is a culture not a person. He feels he is above the law, he is the law … For now the state can control them but I don’t know if they can control them in the future. The state is using them now. The state did it.’ [Continue reading…]

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