By Koen Kluessien -
“We love Assad because the government gave us all the power – if I wanted to take something, kill a person or rape a girl I could […]. The government gave me 30,000 Syrian pounds per month and an extra 10,000 per person that I captured or killed. I raped one girl, and my commander raped many times. It was normal.” This confession describes only one of many atrocities perpetrated by the Shabiha. According to a 2016 country report on Human Rights Practices conducted by the US State Department, these militias systematically perpetrated rape and other attacks on civilian populations. At least 7,672 incidents of sexual abuse were perpetrated since the beginning of the conflict. These predominantly Alawite pro-Assad death squads intimidate, rape, and kill Syrians who oppose the regime. It is no coincidence that Shabiha is Arabic for “ghost” or “shadow”. The militias feel untouchable. Some of these “ghosts” have now found their way to Europe, while their crimes have remained unpunished.
The Shabiha have been around for a long time. In the 1980s and 90s they smuggled food, cigarettes, and other commodities into Lebanon, selling these products with a huge profit. The smuggling was state sponsored and seemingly innocent. However, on the other side of the border luxury cars, guns, and drugs were smuggled from Lebanon into Syria’s state controlled economy. The Shabiha were nothing short of Syrian mobsters and were known for their brutal way of protecting their own business. When Bashar al-Assad came to power, the group was said to be disbanded. However, when the Syrian protestors took to the streets, the Shabiha gangs evolved into militia groups. This time not simply to smuggle products from and to Syria, but also to beat civilians into submission.
The Shabiha are Assad’s militia on steroids, literally. The members of the death squads are often described as wearing trainers and civilians clothes, added with a military style crew cut. What stands out most is their physique. According to one physician many of the members are recruited from bodybuilding gyms and are given steroids. This results in the militiamen resembling a somewhat chubbier and far more scarier version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It must be added that many of the current Shabiha do not resemble this stereotypical look anymore. Still, they are far from ordinary men.
One question that immediately arises is: why are these fighters granted asylum? And more importantly, what are they doing here? There is not yet a clear cut answer to both questions, but open source research by human rights activists provides us with some answers. Humanitarian asylum is only granted to civilians, not to fighters. UNHCR clearly states that “military activity is incompatible with the very institution of asylum. Persons who pursue military activities in a country of asylum cannot be asylum-seekers or refugees.” Still, government militants are often not seen as a threat to the European way of life. Shabiha smoke and drink, are not devout Muslims, and wear Western clothes. With the authorities unaware of the crimes these militias committed, they are generally seen as people who would integrate into our society easily.
The militiamen are under close scrutiny of a special team within the Dutch police force. Still, even the police often has to rely on anonymous tips from refugees who have recognized war criminals. Militias have also been located by open source researchers in European countries such as Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Still, they feel untouchable, even when they are not directly protected by the Syrian government. The alleged war criminals carelessly post photos of their whereabouts on Facebook and other social media. Luckily, this makes it easier for researches to locate them and link them to photos and videos of them wearing combat uniforms and committing war crimes. Already a number of researchers and organizations are posting the names and details of foreign fighters who have been geolocated in European cities. Combined with eyewitness accounts from victims who are now asylum seekers and human rights reports this information can counter impunity. More importantly, human rights activists have received intelligence that a number of Shabiha have been sent by Syrian regime intelligence (the Mukhabarat) to spy on refugees.
Layth Ayman Munshdi is one example of a fighter that sought refuge in Europe and was tracked down by open source researcher Ben Davies, simply using social media. Munshdi joined a pro-regime militia to fight in the armed conflict Moreover, he took part in executions. He also posted photos of himself standing on the bodies of the dead Sunni men he most likely murdered. Later he was located in Neustadt, Germany simply because he uploaded photos from his new life in Europe. He remained there for several months, until Syrians started posting about the crimes he committed. Munshdi consequently deleted his account, he was then lost out of sight for a while. He now resides in Damascus and rejoined the Shi’a militias in Damascus.
The human rights activists conducting the much needed open source research are often Syrian refugees themselves. Needless to say, these researchers are biased in one way or another. When one researchers was asked if he would also publish articles on war criminals from the Syrian opposition he stated that he had not yet found any. It is clear that there is a margin of error to the research. Still, they analyze every detail there is to be found about the individuals. The information is then corroborated with human rights organizations on the ground.
Much of the open source research is conducted by human rights activists that are not part of a police force. They provide us with some much needed awareness on the crimes of the Syrian regime, but they lack any form of judicial power. Luckily, some of the pro-Assad militias residing in Europe are now on the radar of police forces and intelligence agencies. Special war crimes units have started interviewing eyewitnesses and victims, in case a Syrian tribunal is ever established. This pro-active attitude is essential to build a case against war criminals. Still, it is unclear if such a war crimes tribunal will ever come to fruition. Many countries see Assad as the lesser of two evils, arguing that to fight ISIL they must maintain diplomatic relations with the Assad regime. Consequently ignoring that the atrocities committed by the regime forces are often as atrocious as those committed by the Islamic State. If the Shabiha escape any form of sentencing, they will forever haunt the minds of their victims.