Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Assad Struggles to Assert Regime Influence against ‘Shabiha’ Thugs | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Damascus residents fear crime wave committed by Shabiha as the Syrian regime seeks to assert its control over the capital. (AFP)

Damascus – Damascenes are living in great fear as the Syrian regime comes closer to restoring its complete control over the capital.

They fear that the return of the regime will see the occurrence of the crimes that were committed in Aleppo when it recaptured it from the opposition. The city had witnessed in late 2016 an unprecedented crime wave committed by the regime’s “Shabiha” thugs. Forty-eight cases of rape, eight kidnappings, 13 murders and over 18 robberies were recorded during that time, said local sources.

Concerns of a similar crime wave taking place in Damascus have occupied the people’s mind amid reports that the regime was no longer capable of reining in the Shabiha. Some of the thugs have even initiated contact with the Russian base in Hameimen and Iranian militia head al-Sayyed Jawad. One observer went so far as to say that Jawad “is Bashar Assad in Syria.”

Regime head Assad had recently issued orders to “limit the presence of the Shabiha,” but some circles believe that such a measure was done to save face because the thugs are out of his control.

Damascus has seen over the past five years murders, rape, kidnappings for ransom, car theft and house and store robberies. These crimes often took place the Shabiha-controlled areas.

The thugs even set up checkpoints under the pretext of security and even hurled insults at the civilians.

One such civilian told Asharq Al-Awsat that he had to wait two hours to purchase a bag of bread at a staggering 50 liras. “We were optimistic by Assad’s recent order, but it seems the situation is headed from bad to worse,” he said.

He explained that the bread trade has become a profitable business for the Shabiha because they are selling it at three times the price of bakeries.

The regime crackdown against the thugs comes in wake of Defense Ministry order to destroy all non-regime issues security cards.

The Shabiha emerged in 2011 from the “Popular Defense Committees.” Backed by Iran, the committees were originally formed in 2011 at the beginning of the Syrian uprising. They were employed to help the regime in cracking down on the peaceful protests. They included unemployed individuals, retirees, drug abusers and people with criminal records.

They operated under the name of “National Defense Forces,” “Baath Brigades,” and others. They also included members from Iraq and Iran, as well as Lebanese members of the “Hezbollah” militia.

Members of these groups were later called Shabiha due to their crimes and destruction.

After six years of war, the clear role of the Shabiha in regime-held areas emerged and they now hold final say in those regions. Informed sources estimated that there are around 60,000 thugs, while the regime forces numbers that had stood at 350,000 before the unrest has dwindled to 60,000 to 70,000.

The majority of the Shabiha made fortunes due to looting, robberies, embezzlement and other crimes. This is demonstrated in the lavish spending seen in their daily lives. The thugs own luxury vehicles and several houses, which resulted in the emergence of a social and class divide in Syria.

The streets of Damascus have seen the deployment of the police and security forces members in order to implement Assad’s recent orders on the Shabiha. Several vehicles have been halted for either lacking license plates or having tinted windows.

A dispute often breaks out between the police and the vehicle owner, who is often a thug. It also often ends with the Shabiha member refusing to remove the tinted windows.

In addition, the regime has started to remove several of the militia checkpoints in Damascus. It is seeking to render the capital, Homs, Hama, Latakia and Tartous free of checkpoints by August, said sources in Damascus.

Locals have doubted the regime’s ability to remove checkpoints from the capital because the Shabiha have become the actual rulers of some neighborhoods, such as al-Sumeriya and al-Tadamon.

“The unlimited power that the regime granted to those militias prompted them to rebel against the regime itself,” said a local.

Several observers had warned of such a development, adding that controlling the militias in the future will be very difficult.

Furthermore, some militants have even refused to head to the battle frontlines out of the pretext that they had initially joined the militia to “defend their neighborhoods only.”

They have even gone so far as to prevent members of the regime security forces from entering those neighborhoods if the forces were on a mission to apprehend a suspect. Several fierce clashes had erupted between two sides as a result, with deaths reported on either side.

The regime has witnessed some success in eliminating the Shabiha in the Waar neighborhood in northern Damascus. Members of the Fourth Division removed the thugs, who had terrorized the locals, especially in the Barzeh neighborhood.

Observers believe that the regime campaign against the Shabiha stems from several possible reasons.

The first, they told Asharq Al-Awsat, is that Russia is pushing Assad to increase his popularity ahead of the upcoming elections.

The second is Assad’s concern of possible clashes taking place between the Shabiha and Russian and Iranian forces that will be deployed around Damascus, said sources from the Turkish presidency.

The third reasons, said the observers, is that Russia and Iran have pressured Assad to contain the violations of the thugs, who have started to provide weapons to the opposition and terrorist groups alike.

A Shabiha member earns around 30,000 to 60,000 liras a month or around 550 dollars. The salaries are paid by Iran. The wages of Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese militants ranges between 200 to 800 dollars. The observers said that like “Hezbollah”, the majority of the militias in Syria are now more allied to Iran than the regime, which is worrying Assad.