Shabbiha: Paramilitary groups, mass violence and social polarization in Homs

In 2011, paramilitarism became a prominent feature of the Syrian conflict. From the outbreak of the uprising in March 2011, the Syrian government’s violent response to the mass protests became more extensive and intensive

April 10, 2020

Shabbiha: Paramilitary groups, mass violence and social polarization in Homs

Within a year, the Syrian uprising in March 2011 developed into a civil war that gradually escalated and within 9 years killed over half a million people, displaced half the country’s prewar population, devastated the economy, and destabilized the entire region, and even the world. The Syrian civil war split the country into four factions that were continuously at war with each other with intermittent, unstable ceasefires:

the Assad regime, the various rebel groups, the Kurds, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Assad regime was responsible for the bulk of the violence against civilians, qualitatively and quantitatively. Its violent crackdown on the mass protests in Syria became more extensive and intensive throughout the first years of the conflict. A key aspect of the regime’s repression against the population was its use of paramilitary forces, the so-called “Shabbiha,” a catch-all category for irregular, pro-government militias dressed in (semi-)civilian gear and linked organically to the regime. From 2012 onward, they gradually became formalized, first in the Popular Committees (اللجان الشعبيه), and then in the National Defense Forces (قوات الدفاع الوطني) (NDF). Their violence strongly polarized sectarian relations in Syria, and therefore the Shabbiha are vital to understanding the broader conflict. This article will look at the mobilization and violence of the Shabbiha in the city of Homs. It is based on a combination of sources including ethnographic research, interviews with Shabbihamembers, social media content, video clips, leaked documents, and testimonies of victims and other eye witnesses.

This article offers an examination of the perpetration of violence against civilians in the Syrian city of Homs between 2011 and 2013. It analyzes the outbreak, development, and transformation of the conflict in that city, including the emergence of pro-regime paramilitarism, which has been particularly influential in committing violence against civilians. The article focuses especially on the Assad regime’s deployment of the Shabbiha,1 irregular armed groups dressed in civilian gear and committing a broad spectrum of violence against civilians. The paper will look specifically at those different forms and modes of violence (in particular massacres, kidnapping, sexual violence, but also torture, forced disappearances, siege, and others) and their different effects in the period after the violence (such as cultural trauma, sectarian polarization). The article argues that the broader Shabbihaphenomenon manifests a fundamental complexity in its appearance, identity, motives, cleavage, and regional varieties. To unravel some of these complexities, the paper looks at the micro-dynamics of Shabbiha violence in the city of Homs as a particularly instructive example of pro-state paramilitarism.

Paramilitarism refers to clandestine, irregular armed organizations that carry out illegal acts of violence against clearly defined civilian individuals or groups. It has immense importance for understanding the processes of violence that are played out during violent conflicts, which often see the formation of paramilitary units that conduct counter-insurgency operations, scorched-earth campaigns, and violence against civilians including massacres. The vast and complex literature on paramilitarism cannot be done justice here, but in this article, “paramilitarism” is conceptualized as a system in which a state has a complex set of relationships with these types of groups that carry out violence. These armed groups have different forms and types of relationships with the state, but nevertheless converge in their close links to the state. Paramilitary units have appeared in a wide range of conflicts and have been responsible for widespread violations of human rights, such as forced population transfer, sexual violence, and massacres. Even though paramilitarism has often been portrayed as inherent to weak post-colonial states in the Global South, it is a truly global phenomenon, albeit with regionally and nationally different manifestations. In the late 1970s and especially early 1990s, paramilitary units also appeared on the European continent, wreaking havoc in several conflicts from Northern Ireland to Yugoslavia, Kurdistan, and Chechnya. The conduct of the counterinsurgencies and organization of the violence by the (respectively British, Serbian, Turkish, and Russian) states bear relevance beyond the immediate country context and are reflective of broader theoretical as well as empirical concerns.2

Although Syrian paramilitarism operated, from 2011 onward, in a different international political, historical, and ideological context than the Latin American or European counterinsurgencies and civil wars of the late 20th century, it is highly relevant to the broader scholarship on paramilitarism. The few existing studies of Syrian paramilitarism demonstrate that Syria is not an aberration or an exception, as it evinces both structural and phenomenological similarities with other cases, such as the security dilemma between identity communities, the complex collusion with the state, and the criminalization during and after the war (Leenders, 2015Lund, 2015). Furthermore, in virtually all cases it is clear that the state benefited from relying on these groups as they provided it with plausible deniability by allowing it to disavow any linkage with these shadowy organizations by claiming they were private groups committing violence on their own volition. Much as in other cases of paramilitarism, close investigations of the Shabbiha phenomenon reveal that it too emerged in the context of the power of the state to outsource and subcontract illegal and illegitimate violence against civilians (Leenders and Giustozzi, 2019). This article follows and extends this line of research by focusing on the courses and logic of Shabbihaviolence, by triangulating social media content, perpetrator interviews, and victim testimonies. Such an approach has not yet been taken, and will, for the first time, shed light on the motives and subjectivities of the perpetrators.

In 2011, paramilitarism became a prominent feature of the Syrian conflict. From the outbreak of the uprising in March 2011, the Syrian government’s violent response to the mass protests became more extensive and intensive. Within 8 years, a civil war had devastated economic and civic life, killed over 500,000 people, reached military and political stalemate, and fragmented Syrian territory. A key aspect of the Assad regime’s repression against the population was its use of paramilitary forces, in popular parlance generically called Shabbiha, a catch-all category for irregular militias dressed in civilian gear and linked organically to the regime. From March 2011 onward, their acts were well-documented in video clips, leaks, confessions, defections, and victim testimonies. The Shabbiha carried out storming of neighborhoods, dispersion of demonstrations, and property crimes, torture, kidnapping, assassination, and massacre (Starr, 2012). The Assad regime condoned, absorbed, incited, steered, and gradually organized and reorganized the Shabbiha, first in 2011 into the “Popular Committees” (لجان شعبيه), then in 2012 into the “National Defense Forces” (NDF) (قوات الدفاع الوطني). This transformation of paramilitary forces introduced a formalization of their structures, a devolution of state power, and a further criminalization of the conflict. Whereas the Shabbiha seem to have appeared out of the blue, they had a clear prehistory: these networks had been engaging in illegal activities (protection rackets, smuggling, gambling) before 2011, including during the Lebanese civil war. The Assad regime connived with them and maintained them “on retainer” through its elaborate patronage system (Al-Haj Saleh, 2017: 45–64). The rank-and-file of the militias is largely drawn from young unemployed men from particular sections of Syrian society, in Homs especially from the Alawite neighborhoods. Its victims are a broad range of individuals and groups that are targeted for a variety of reasons.3

This article examines how these networks were mobilized in the Syrian conflict, and how they committed violence against civilians from 2011 to 2013. This period merits our attention as it was the phase in which the conflict escalated, Shabbiha power grew, and violence against civilians was most prominent. First, it develops its methodological framework, laying out the choices made and challenges confronted, and focusing on the multi-dimensional (im)possibilities of research and fieldwork on and in Syria. Second, it sketches the contours and developments of the Shabbihaphenomenon in Homs, including its incipience and leadership. It then shifts to the core of the article: an examination of the perpetration of massacres against civilians in the city of Homs between 2011 and 2013. The article provides a broad sketch of the context, and a detailed examination of two particularly illuminating cases. The article then moves on to a discussion of their different effects in the period of post-violence, concentrating on cultural trauma and social polarization. The concluding remarks offer the central argument and suggest new lines of research on the brutal violence in this ongoing conflict.

This article is based on a mixed-methods approach, consisting of examination of leaked documents of the Syrian secret services and social media content (including Facebook posts and YouTube clips), published reports, as well as interviews that have been conducted in person with Syrians mostly outside of Homs (due to the impossibility of conducting this research in the city), and via Skype with Syrians still inside the country (mostly the paramilitaries themselves). This composite set of methods followed from the difficulties and dangers surrounding any research in Syria, especially on pro-government militias. Therefore, the article also discusses new methodological approaches to address the question: How does one study violence that was explicitly designed not to be studied or discovered in any way?

The conditions of my fieldwork after 2011 were extraordinarily difficult due to two central problems: threat levels, and silences. First and foremost, most violence research operates in a dense political field, but of all conditions constraining research on political violence, state violence against civilians stands out. States often not only have a vested interest in misrepresenting the truth, making efforts to influence the scholarship on these episodes of mass violence. They also tend to deny access to archival collections and libraries, intimidate and prohibit researchers from conducting fieldwork. Having to contend with the taboos, restrictions, prescriptions, and outright threats of an authoritarian regime like Syria keeps scholars working on these topics under permanent threat. Researchers bold enough to travel into these societies to visit sites, uncover evidence, interview witnesses, have got to fear the Syrian intelligence agencies (the Mukhabarat). Therefore, there was not a shred of doubt that I would be under severe threat for the research I was/am conducting, which posed a methodological dilemma. That’s why I launched sting operations and “undercover ethnography” (see below), and I used additional informants, fixers, and mediators on the ground. The only advantage I held was that I could build on my existing networks predating the war. My first research trips to Homs date from the summer of 2006 and April 2009, when I was studying the politics of minorities and power in the country. The networks I developed in that period with certain Alawite families from the neighborhood of Akrama in Homs and the western village of Kafr Kamra gained a new significance in 2011. I quickly came to realize that the same individuals I had met in peacetime had now mobilized and joined pro-regime militias. By maintaining intimate contact in the Homsi diaspora, as well as paying close attention to the Homsi social media content, I conducted a series of long-distance interviews that shed light on these men’s motives and experiences.

Second, I had to contend with the silences and distortions in my research, both in terms of emotions and narratives. My interviewees’ emotions of anger, sadness, fear, survivor guilt, and anxiety had a major impact on the interviews. They rendered my interviews an alienating and isolating experience: the more I was absorbed into the stories of the eye witnesses, the more I was also drawn into their emotions. I felt compassion when interviewing victims, and indignation when interviewing perpetrators. More importantly, these emotions profoundly influenced the interviewees’ narratives: victims and survivors did not gladly speak of the violence due to fear and shame, whereas the perpetrators did not speak about it due to the secrecy and strict censorship surrounding the acts of violence. As Lee-Ann Fujii (2010) argued, “Systemic silences, evasions, and denials can obscure the identities of perpetrators, lead to under- and overestimations of popular participation in violence, and foreground certain actors, such as thugs, while downplaying the rule of other actors, such as neighbors” (p. 239). As a result, acquiring data on a particular moment of extreme violence was met with resistance and obstacles from both sides of the violence. Perpetrators in particular use moral neutralizations to deflect responsibility in the crimes, and their version of the same events can differ significantly from that of the victims (Anderson, 2017: 170–190). I was fortunate to be in a position where I could triangulate interviews with perpetrators and victims and social media content, such as video clips.

This article is based on several years of immersive ethnographic fieldwork and oral history research including interviews with victims, perpetrators, and other eye witnesses.4 This includes a significant number of interviews with individuals who are originally from Homs, and others who have spent time in Homs and therefore can comment on it. These interviews were conducted mostly in Arabic, some in English, and very few in Turkish, German, or Dutch. These interviews with Syrians from Homs (“Homsis”) render a complex picture of Shabbiha mobilization in that city. In order to gather as many different vantage points on the civil war as possible, I conducted fieldwork in various countries to interview Homsis from different ethnic and sectarian backgrounds, classes, neighborhoods, and political persuasions. Whereas some interviewees were relatively young and well-educated oppositionists, others were fence-sitters, and again others were solidly pro-Assad. My interviewees were mostly born and raised in the city, or had migrated there as children, but others were from the countryside’s many small towns or villages. What is relevant is that all of them had experience with paramilitary violence, the clearest being the actual perpetrators and direct victims. Others were eye witnesses to acts of violence because they had known one or more Shabbiha personally: either they grew up with them, went to school with them, or knew them as neighbors or family members. The interviewees were selected for their closeness to the violent events, and the massacres I examine in this article are those massacres for which I found a three-dimensional set of sources. I do not focus on the acts, cases, and moments of violence for which there was only one set of witnesses (e.g. only pro-regime or only anti-regime).5

The fact that my research took so long was partly due to my own choices of pacing myself to patiently pursue sensitive lines of inquiry, and partly due to the difficulties of establishing the requisite level of rapport and trust with informants. It is well-known that current political conditions shape the research process, and researching Syria has a few advantages, but some very serious challenges as well. The major advantage that current day Syria has over other cases of the immediate aftermath of mass violence (such as in Rwanda or Bangladesh) is that there are no legal repercussions for admitting to having committed violence against the target group. Also, with almost a million Syrian refugees in Europe, most people felt more open to speak about the violence due to the broad European anti-Assad consensus. For example, one Homsi man I interviewed both in Turkey and Canada was much more open in the latter country than in the former. Another advantage is that there was significantly less interference of ethnographic “meta-data” (such as rumors about the researcher) inside Syria, owing to the possibility of Skype interviews. Since nobody saw me and my interviewees in public, the interviewee’s identity, reputation, and safety could be protected much better.

There were significant challenges to this research that are specific to Syria, starting with the pervasive, visceral fear of survivors and victims of state violence in Syria (Pearlman, 2016). Peritore (1990) noted that “interviewing is also interrogation, and many subjects will not allow it to penetrate beyond a certain level of generality” (p. 360). Since Syrians associate interrogation with the feared Mukhabarat, I requested “meetings” (لقاء) with them, and not “interviews” (مقابلة), which is semantically too close to the term “interrogation” (استدعاء). Upon many interviewees’ requests, I did not tape them but took notes, and I respect their requests of confidentiality and anonymity. The exception to this rule is those perpetrators who were known public figures in the Syrian and international media, and whose safety would not be compromised in any way due to my research.6 Interviewing the perpetrators to research violence against civilians also brought a range of problems that needed to be tackled. Breaking and entering into the secret world of Assad’s paramilitaries required me to pierce through two walls of silence. First, the secrecy and concealment that surround the networks and infrastructure of paramilitarism, deliberately erected by upper-level Assad regime agencies in order to maintain plausible deniability for the atrocities. Second, the almost impenetrably dense world of intimate, social trust and unquestioned loyalty that the rank-and-file of the actual paramilitaries inhabit, which is a product of the sustained, collective violent transgressions of both combat and committing atrocities.

Taking these points about perpetrators in consideration, Scheper-Hughes questioned just whom it was that ethics panels and codes were protecting, and suggested that some social practices that are kept secret, including political crimes, require “undercover ethnography,” adding, ‘These new engagements required not only a certain militancy but also a constant self-reflexive and self-critical rethinking of professional ethics, the production of truth and the protection of one’s research subjects’. She did not always identify herself as an anthropology professor, but sometimes posed as a prospective buyer of a liver on the illegal, international organs-trafficking market, and gained access to doctors, sellers, and buyers (Scheper-Hughes, 2004: 45). I too, dissimulated by postponing my moral and political judgments, and maintaining vagueness about my perceived sectarian identity, even if pressed about it. Rather than using the proximity of collective identity, the fact that I was willing to listen, at length, to their stories, gave me significant credibility and built up trust and recognition. Finally, I supplemented my patchwork of interviews with media articles and social media materials, including YouTube clips, Facebook posts, and personal documents and leaks. Using triangulation and cross-verification, a complex picture emerges of pro-Assad paramilitarism.

The city of Homs played an important role in the cascade of revolutionary activity that engulfed Syria from the beginning of 2011 onward. If Homs was historically a mostly Sunni and Christian city, Alawite urbanization from the countryside increased in the 1970s and by 2010, a significant minority of Alawites lived there, commanding a disproportionate share of government jobs, including sensitive positions in the security apparatuses (police, army, intelligence). Political activism and mass demonstrations in Homs began to spread and gain traction alongside the broader civil uprising across Syria. The uprising went through three distinct phases: non-violent activism, military insurgency and civil war, and finally escalation of regime violence—siege, mass arrests, generalized destruction of opposition areas (Baczko et al., 2018). The first phase began in mid-March, following the uprising in Deraa and supportive demonstrations in Damascus, as the Local Coordination Committees sprung up in Syrian cities and protests spread to Homs as well. On Friday, 18 March 2011, after online calls for a “Friday of Dignity” (جمعة الكرامة‎), thousands of Homsis demonstrated in the streets of the city. For example, in the Khaled bin al-Waleed mosque in the largely working-class Sunni neighborhood of Khaldiya, 2000 people gathered and demonstrated, but the security forces and Shabbiha assaulted and arrested a number of them. From then on, Homsis demonstrated regularly on Fridays, which turned deadlier and deadlier, and by early April, every week dozens of demonstrators were killed or arrested. So many people attended so many demonstrations in such a sustained way, that Homs became known as the “capital of the revolution.” By early August 2011, defecting Syrian Arab Army (SAA) soldiers and officers established the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the rebellion acquired a two-track character, with both civil activism and military insurgency. The armed uprising went from defensive actions against regime assaults, to sporadic attacks on police patrols, military checkpoints, and intelligence stations, and by late 2012, the state’s monopoly of violence broke down, and the city experienced territorial fragmentation and sectarian segregation. The third and final phase of the uprising was its crushing, through overwhelming violence, by the regime. As the fighting gradually escalated from a low-intensity conflict with small arms to an asymmetric civil war, the regime increasingly used draconic methods, including a deadly siege, heavy weaponry, including air strikes and indiscriminate bombing of opposition areas. The fighting continued, with the rebels slowly but steadily losing ground, until in early May 2014, the warring parties reached a ceasefire, and the remaining rebel fighters evacuated to northern Syria. By 2015, the regime was back in full control of Homs and the uprising was de facto over.7

Paramilitary mobilization in support of the Assad regime’s repression against the uprising began in the footsteps of the first demonstrations. From 2011 onward, the city experienced political polarization, as some neighborhoods began massively protesting against the regime, whereupon significant paramilitary mobilization occurred to repress them, and yet other neighborhoods remained fairly uninvolved and sat on the fence for a host of reasons. The daily or weekly mass demonstrations emerged from the mostly Sunni and working-class neighborhoods of Baba Amr, Jobar, Khaldiya, al-Wa’er, Bayada, Deir Baalbeh, and to a certain extent the mixed Sunni and Christian, middle-class areas such as Insha’at, Bab Sba’a, Karm al-Zeitoun, and Bab Dreib.8 Although the regime commanded a wide spectrum of security forces in Homs (especially the main four intelligence branches), it allowed, instigated, and organized pro-regime paramilitary groups to emerge in mostly Alawite areas such as Zahra and Wadi al-Dhahab (working-class), as well as Akrama, Nuzha, and Karm al-Loz (middle-class). The inception of the Shabbiha as a major actor and public phenomenon can be traced to this first phase of paramilitary mobilization. Much like in the rest of Syria, the Shabbiha in Homs emerged first as a set of loose, informal and tightly knit groups based on kinship or neighborhood, and gradually formalized, first into the Popular Committees, and then into the NDF, as their tasks and institutional affiliations changed gradually with the course of the conflict.9

According to most of my interviewees, including those with the Shabbiha themselves, mobilization came from a broad range of mostly Alawite milieus: influential businessmen, convicted criminals, Alawite sheikhs, Mukhabarat bosses, family elders, martial arts enthusiasts, retired army and intelligence officers, and even humanitarian organizations. There could be unlikely participants like the real estate businesses and offices in Homs, who were influential in organizing the Shabbiha, because of their close relations with the Mukhabarat, which needed to gather close intelligence about neighborhoods, such as names and addresses of families living in particular streets and houses. As long as they could mobilize a group to carry out the tasks of repression of opposition activity, including dispersing demonstrations, informing on activists, and storming and swarming neighborhoods, the regime tolerated and encouraged Shabbiha activity.10 Among the dozens of Shabbihaprofiles that I drew up in Homs, the mobilization generally ran through four avenues: kinship, business, party, and sect. Mobilizing these pre-existing structures and re-purposing them for political violence must have been more efficient than spawning a new force from zero amid the conflict.

As demonstrations, sit-ins, and civil protest spread, so the Assad regime’s response to it intensified: arrests expanded, surveillance increased, checkpoints mushroomed. Furthermore, the regime increasingly empowered and organized the Shabbiha, to the extent that within years, Homs became known as the capital of the Shabbihaphenomenon in Syria. No official paperwork exists on this phase of paramilitary mobilization, but in-depth interviews with his employees, his victims, and himself, corroborated with social media research demonstrate that a relatively unknown man named Saqqar Rustom (born 1974) quickly rose to prominence as the Shabbihaleader in the city and province of Homs. His power and influence in the city undoubtedly left an indelible imprint on the violence in Homs, and ultimately the entire conflict. Rustom hails from the Alawite village of Khirbet al-Hamam in northwestern Homs; the story of his family is a fairly typical one of rural Alawites moving to the city of Homs under Hafez al-Assad’s reign, in search of employment and education. So too, Rustom grew up in Homs, finished his education as an engineer, and became a businessman in a real estate development and investment company called Damas (Aliqtisadi, n.d.). Throughout the 2000s, Rustom was a rather unremarkable entrepreneur, working at the Hasya Industrial City north of Homs, and living in the al-Nuzha neighborhood. At some point, he seems to have fallen from grace due to allegations of various forms of corruption and self-enrichment. The 2011 uprising came at an opportune moment, as it catapulted him to unprecedented forms of power and wealth.11

At the outbreak of the 2011 uprising, Saqqar Rustom’s maternal uncle Bassam al-Hassan, Brigadier-General in the Republican Guards, urged him to join the al-Bustan charitable association of Rami Makhlouf, Bashar al-Assad’s business tycoon cousin. Rustom derived much of his power from this kinship relation with Brigadier al-Hassan. Throughout April and May 2011, Rustom oversaw the mobilization and recruitment of young Alawites into Homs’ Shabbiha networks, which were reorganized into the Popular Committees in the summer of 2011 and formed the nucleus of the NDF, which was formalized in 2013. Other militias such as the Ba’ath Brigades were nowhere as powerful and present as the Shabbiha-turned-NDF of Homs. These armed groups had the dual task of protecting Alawite neighborhoods, as well as aiding the security services as auxiliaries in their repression of the uprising. Participation was voluntary in exchange for some material support, and the regime gradually allocated salaries, resources, and logistic support, including arms, as the Shabbiha’s numbers and power in the city grew exponentially. By early 2012, their number had exceeded 2500 and Rustom was lord and master of Homs, in many ways more powerful than the governor, mayor, and even the local army officers and intelligence bosses (Dagher, 2019: 274–275). But their power began to disturb established regime structures, and in mid-2013 simmering tensions between the NDF and the security forces erupted in clashes, as a result of which Damascus had to intervene. The regime promoted Saqqar away and appointed him the national head of the NDF. By 2017, when the regime seemed to be heading toward an unavoidable military victory, Rustom no longer worked with the NDF, but worked with his new non-governmental organizations (NGO), the Martyrs’ Association (مؤسسة الشهيد).12 He left behind a devastated and divided Homs, with his NDF underlings in charge of much of the city.

The elevation of a relatively unknown and irrelevant peddler like Saqqar Rustom over the regime’s entire security and administrative bureaucracy demonstrates two points. First, that the patronage networks now began to run alongside kinship, apart from the existing patronage networks of the Ba’ath party and the business milieu. It set a high-profile example that promoting family members was necessary, even desirable, if the move held the promise and potential of mobilizing men for the highly sensitive assignments that required trust and discretion. Second, it shows that the scope of “polarization” and “escalation” was not limited between the regime and the opposition, but also, and critically, extended within the regime. Shabbiha mobilization sidelined sitting bureaucrats, cast aside possible moderates, and brought into power a new social class of lower and lower-middle-class Alawites. These men not only feared and hated rebellious Sunni communities in Homs, even before the conflict, but also harbored resentment against their marginal position within the broader patrimonial structures during Bashar al-Assad’s first decade of rule. This was their moment to “shine” and they seized the opportunity without hesitation.

The ebb and flow of the military confrontations was a process that ran parallel to regime violence against civilians, which continued in both opposition areas (through shelling, bombing, air strikes), as well as in regime-held areas (through arrests, executions, massacres). This latter vector of violence must be seen as a largely autonomous process that is not an epiphenomenon of war, but one that is distinctly separate from (but interrelated to) the fighting between combatants on the fronts. The Assad regime’s crackdown on the uprising consisted of a combination of cosmetic political concessions, attempts at co-optation, threats and intimidation against potential activists, as well as an uncompromising campaign of violence that gradually escalated into generalized destruction of any political opposition. Several forms of violence stand out for their relevance and impact on Homs city, but the massacres of 2011 and 2012 were in particular relevant for charting the course of the conflict from then on. Much of this violence was committed by the Shabbiha in Homs, who became synonymous with the violence they committed. These massacres were in particular representative of Shabbiha violence in that their commission not only demonstrated the forms of violence carried out by them, but also exposed their relationships to the state. This section will sketch the commission of that violence, using interviews with both victims and perpetrators as lived examples of the broader repression.

One of the first massacres in the city was the Clock Square massacre of 18–19 April 2011. By mid-April 2011, several bloody Fridays had passed, and each day dozens were being killed all across Syria. The revolutionaries dubbed Friday 15 April 2011 “Friday of Determination” (جمعة الإصرار‎), and mass protests occurred in various cities, including the big cities, Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Baniyas, and again dozens were killed.13 On Saturday, 16 April, President Assad gave a televised speech to the People’s Assembly, in which he discussed a broad range of political and civil rights, including the right to demonstrate, but not only did he ignore the violence and killings by the formal security forces, there also did not seem to be any impact of his professed good intentions on the ground (SANA, 2011). In Homs, for example, security forces shot at the funerals of those who were killed the day before, which sparked more demonstrations. Ultimately, a number of revolutionaries decided on bold measures and took the protests to the city center: Clock Square. The demonstration drew a large crowd, and thousands began staging a festive sit-in with tents (like Tahrir Square in Cairo), which lasted into the night. After sunset, security personnel gradually took positions around the square, but eye witness accounts confirm that whereas the crowd-control police stood by and did not intervene, the units of the Air Force Intelligence and Military Intelligence and the accompanying Shabbiha became increasingly aggressive.14 But to no avail: around 2:00 am, their attack followed suit. The Shabbiha opened a deafening, random fire from the rooftops as people dispersed in panic. Those who were unable to get away in the carnage were killed or wounded, as the Shabbiha stormed the square, executed the wounded, and cleared the area of dead bodies, which were not returned to their families but dumped in unknown locations.15 Furthermore, demonstrators who were captured were arrested and either ended up in prison or were forcibly disappeared—the number of missing persons is still high. For these reasons, the death toll is unclear, and estimates range between 83 to over 300 (Al-Hadeed, 2014).

The perpetrators of the Clock Square massacre were primarily Shabbiha and intelligence agency personnel, as demonstrated by smartphone footage, shot by the perpetrators themselves to celebrate taking over the square. In these videos, they euphorically chant pro-Assad slogans, stand on dead bodies, tag graffiti on the square, insult and threaten the demonstrators, and take selfies with fellow Shabbiha(Abu Silmya, 2011). Throughout the night, the Shabbiha celebrated and congratulated each other for having suppressed the revolution in Homs once and for all. The eye witness account of a defected Mukhabarat official who participated in the massacre sheds light on the perpetration of the killings and corroborates the accounts of the protesters themselves:

The protesters had sat down in the square. We were told to disperse them with violence if needed. We were there with Air Force security, army, and Shabeeha. At around 3:30 a.m., we got an order from Colonel Abdel Hamid Ibrahim from Air Force security to shoot at the protesters. We were shooting for more than half an hour. There were dozens and dozens of people killed and wounded. Thirty minutes later, earth diggers and fire trucks arrived. The diggers lifted the bodies and put them in a truck. I don’t know where they took them. The wounded ended up at the military hospital in Homs. And then the fire trucks started cleaning the square.16

Assad Mohsen (born 1984) hails from the mixed Alawite and Christian village of al-Mushrafah. At the outbreak of the uprising, Mohsen was a young chef working in a hotel in Oman, when he decided to return to Syria and volunteer in the early Shabbihaformations, “to protect my family, my village, and my community,” he argued in an interview, claiming: “I heard that Sunnis set fire to Alawite children in Latakia, and they slaughtered army soldiers in Jisr al-Shughr.” In several interviews conducted through 2017 and 2018, he explained that he took part in the Clock Square massacre as a preemptive measure, but showed no remorse at all.17 His story is fairly typical of an Alawite man in his 30s, who mobilized due to a combination of sectarian fear of future scenarios, rumors of atrocities, and empowerment and impunity. Many other Shabbiha mirror this perspective on and framing of the conflict.

The Clock Square massacre was particularly relevant for several reasons: it was the first organized violence that the Shabbiha carried out in the most public and visible way, it was carried out against the protocols and wishes of some of the most powerful security personnel (including Manaf Tlass), and most of all it accelerated the violence on both sides of the political cleavage. The shooting at unarmed demonstrators, swarming the square to beat and murder protestors, and the ecstatic celebration of this transgressive violence violated old norms and set new ones in the public political landscape of Syria. The massacre was a knife that cut through society as an uncompromising signal: anyone bold enough to demonstrate would have to fear a very violent retribution by the Shabbiha, who operated in plain view and whose brutality was condoned by the regime. Therefore, the massacre was also a major shock to the city in particular and in the country in general. It terrified the victims and their social and political environment, and emboldened the Shabbiha, for whom the massacre was the first publicly committed murderous transgression. It was a turning point in the polarization of political identities and hardening of sectarian ones.

As the demonstrations continued and spread, so did the repression. The next Friday (22 April 2011), demonstrators rallied in various Damascus neighborhoods, chanting the famous slogan “The people want the downfall of the regime” (الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام), calling for vigilance and revenge, and tearing down public banners and photos of Assad (Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami, 2016: 46–48). Homs also saw demonstrations, and May and June saw daily death tolls at these protests. By late July 2011, the Violations Documentation Center had registered over 500 confirmed killings of civilians in Homs.18 That summer, as the regime escalated and militarized its repression against the uprising, especially in southern Deraa, Syrian army soldiers began defecting and hiding in their hometowns or in the opposition neighborhoods. The initial response was to defend the demonstrations, but defense escalated into skirmishes, which then bled into attacks on regime checkpoints and positions. On 29 July 2011, Colonel Riyad al-Asaad announced the formation of the FSA, and the uprising-repression dynamic was overlaid with an asymmetric armed conflict (International Crisis Group, 2012). The regime deliberately pushed people into the neighborhoods in order to isolate the uprising from coordination, segregate the city, and coordinate the repression. As the squares were closed off, and communications cut off, demonstrations retreated into the rebellious neighborhoods like Baba Amr, Karm al-Zeitoun, and Khaldiya, where a motley group of FSA factions attempted to withhold the regime’s onslaught and committed defensive and offensive violence, for example, by killing soldiers stationed at regime checkpoints or ambushing those traveling by their neighborhoods (Leenders, 2016). The city became tense, fragmented, with checkpoints sprouting across its socio-economic and sectarian tapestry. By October 2011, the regime sealed off rebellious neighborhoods, and skirmishes between the FSA and the SAA became regular experiences in the city. The regime then began blockading and besieging the insurgent neighborhoods more seriously, in an attempt to choke them into submission and surrender (Al-Fares, 2015). Residents going through checkpoints were treated as suspected demonstrators or FSA fighters, and regularly suffered humiliations and arrests. Finally, elite troops and intelligence agencies stormed the neighborhoods in violent search-and-arrest operations, during which Shabbiha committed indiscriminate massacres against the civilian population.

The twin Karm al-Zeitoun massacres are a good example of this course of events. The mostly Sunni neighborhood lies in a strategic area between three mostly Alawite neighborhoods (Nuzha, Akrama, and Zahra) and was sealed off with checkpoints and shelled throughout late 2011.19 On 26 January 2012, the State Intelligence (Amn al-Dawla) surrounded the neighborhood, as the Shabbiha stormed the neighborhood on foot, raided houses and massacred at least 36 civilians indiscriminately. One of the victims was Mohammed Turki al-Mohammed (1972–2012), a former detainee who had been released from prison shortly before the massacre and had returned home, only to be killed in the massacre.20 This first massacre was followed by the second massacre early March. On 9 March 2012, SAA tanks entered Karm al-Zeitoun and began shelling it. On the night of 11 March, State Intelligence and Shabbiha encircled the neighborhood, stormed the inhabited houses, and massacred at least 47 women and children in the district.21 Video footage of the bodies shows men, women, and children in civilian clothing, shot in the face, throats slit, stabbed, hacked, and burnt, in what must have been very intimate forms of violence. A local activist named Abu Moaz comments on the video, as he describes in great detail the victims’ wounds and names, amid the pandemonium of grieving family members. The death toll is estimated at between 40 and 60 civilians, including women and children, with especially the Bahader, Akkra, and al-Mohammed families being struck (Syrian Network for Human Rights, 2012). Some women had been raped before being killed, according to survivors.22 The Karm al-Zeitoun massacres were one of the first in which unarmed children had been slaughtered in cold blood, in what was yet another moral threshold crossed in an ever-escalating repression.

The identities of the perpetrators remained unclear for a long time, although even on a balance of probabilities it was very plausible that pro-regime actors were the likely responsible. Pro-regime media outlets acknowledged that the massacre had indeed taken place, but immediately launched a misinformation campaign. It denied the responsibility of the Shabbiha and vaguely pinned the massacre on “armed terrorist groups” (الجماعات الإرهابية المسلحة) led by a certain Nawwar al-Muhaymidi, a hapless individual who was dragged out in front of the cameras to recite a clearly scripted confession.23 But also in more serious documentation and journalism, the identities of the perpetrators were fairly unclear, and the generic term “the Shabbiha” was being used. Survivors mentioned about the perpetrators that “[s]ome were wearing civilian clothes, others were in military outfits” (Human Rights Watch, 2012: 16). Triangulation of survivor testimony, social media, YouTube, and most importantly, interviews with Shabbiha from Homs demonstrate that the main perpetrator group of the Karm al-Zeitoun massacre were members of the al-Sayes family, who originally hail from Fahel village in the northern countryside of Homs, and were mostly living in the Akrama neighborhood since the 1970s. The key Shabbiha mobilizer was Issa al-Sayes (born 1970), better known by his nickname Al-Khaal (“The Uncle”) Abu Ali. Al-Khaal is a retired special forces officer who organized one of the first Shabbihagroups in Homs, which included his younger brothers Ahmad and Suleiman, both of whom were involved in the Shabbiha from the beginning and were consistently active in their violence in the city. His influence was significant and he can be considered one of the most powerful Shabbiha bosses in Homs after Saqqar Rustom.24 He is also notoriously secretive and evasive, and it proved particularly difficult to interview him about his life story and the “events” (أحداث) in Homs. His younger brother Ahmad, however, was more talkative and shared a great deal of information on his Facebook page, including photos, videos, and updates.

Ahmad al-Sayes (born 1978) was a policeman in the governorate office of Homs, when the security committee of Homs allocated him to the Popular Committees in early 2011. By 2013, he had become a division leader in the NDF (see Figure 2), had participated in several battles, and was wounded in some. In several interviews, Ahmad offered his perspective on the beginning and course of the conflict and his vision of the NDF. He began explaining how the Popular Committees were motivated by “protection of their neighborhoods, families, honor, and houses.” Alawites, he argued, were a poor minority in Syria and therefore had to fend for themselves against the “terrorist” uprising, which according to him was an international conspiracy. He dismissed media reports and human rights reports on Shabbihacrimes and in the early interviews flatly denied any violence against civilians, adding: ‘The state won’t harm anybody if he’s not a criminal.’ A key element in his arguments was his gendered perspective of the conflict. He denied any sexual violence by the Shabbiha and accused the Sunnis of Homs of coveting Alawite women and “honor.” He repeated a widely circulated, generic rumor that “Sunnis from Khaldiya” had stopped a minibus, selected and dragged off the Alawite girls, stripped them of their clothes and cut open a pregnant woman’s womb. But he offered no evidence of these allegations, nor did he mention when they supposedly happened.25 At the time of interviewing, he argued that the situation in Homs was like in 2011: “People feel safe and women can go to restaurants at 3:00 in the night.” Ahmad was identified by local activists as responsible for several massacres (Al-Rifa’i, 2014). When asked about the Karm al-Zeitoun massacre, Ahmad was quite frank about it, confirming his presence on the scene and boasting: “They ate it and we trampled on their dignity” (أكلوها و دعسنا على كراماتهم).26 This last comment is a clear reference to sexual violence, and exemplifies how perpetrators of atrocities speak euphemistically about them, even if they see the violence as justified.

Figure 1. Map of Homs showing demonstrations in 2011 (source: syriamap.wordpress.com).

Figure 2. Ahmad al-Sayes (center) at the NDF office in Homs.
Source: Ahmad al-Sayes Facebook page, 20 February 2017, at: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=172693336559515&set=pb.100014565497820.-2207520000.1558087026.&type=3&theater

The massacres of early 2012 cut very deep cleavages through Homs. The identities of the perpetrators, the impunity that followed, the clear innocence of the victims steered the conflict much more toward an openly sectarian civil war. Whereas non-violent activists called for restraint and pointed out that that was exactly what regime hardliners wanted, many young men from working-class Sunni backgrounds were not easily restrained, joined armed groups, and retaliated against Alawites. A cycle of tit-for-tat kidnappings and killings developed, as neighborhoods were becoming increasingly homogenized. Alawites moved from largely Sunni neighborhoods (often before military operations), and Sunnis were expelled from Alawite neighborhoods.27The segregation fueled the fear in the city, as small-scale skirmishes continued and the regime retaliated with disproportionate violence against opposition areas. From February 2012 onward, the regime attempted to once and for all “finish” the uprising through overwhelming violence. Between 27 and 29 February 2012, regime forces and Shabbiha committed a large-scale massacre after they stormed the Baba Amr neighborhood. Then, massacres followed in Khaldiya (27 February), Sultaniya (29 February), Jobar (8 March), Deir Ba’albeh (5–9 April), and the violence spread into the countryside and struck Houla and Taldou (25 May), Qubair (6 June), Tremseh (13 July), and beyond, into Hama province (Harris, 2018: 34).

By now, the Homs massacres and the term “Shabbiha” had gained international notoriety: a United Nations commission investigating human rights abuses in Syria confirmed that at least nine massacres had occurred in 2012, and that the Syrian government and its supporters had been responsible for eight of them. But even with the resources of the UN, the report admitted that they were unable to identify who and what the Shabbiha were as follows: “Pro-Government militia, including Shabbiha, reportedly acted alongside Government forces in security and military operations. Their precise nature, strength and relationship with the Government remains unclear.” (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights [OHCHR], 2012: 8) There was no mention of Saqqar Rustom, Al-Khaal Abu Ali, or any other perpetrator, and the Assad regime’s scheme to outsource violence to paramilitaries seemed to be working. The locals, however, knew exactly who was responsible for the massacres. In general, Alawite communities were more knowledgeable about the identities of the militias than the victimized Sunni ones, among whom only a small number of activists collected information on their executioners. When I discussed the massacres with my Homsi pro-regime contacts from Akrama and Kafr Kamra, the response I received was a combination of denial, obscurantism, justification, and veiled threat. Some outright denied the occurrence of any massacres, others contended that there had been massacres but it was impossible to find out who their culprits were, and again others legitimized them by positing that “the Sunnis had massacred Alawites first.” These conversations invariably ended with my informants squinting their eyes and slowing down their speech, which gave an ominous indication of impending censure, or worse. The elephant in the room never disappeared.

Paramilitarism can be seen as a form, phase, and dynamic of a state’ formation, because its activities extend beyond mere murder, and include property dispossession, intelligence, security provision, and other state functions. The major question of how paramilitaries are connected and embedded in states finds an interesting set of answers in the Syrian case. The complex, symbiotic relationships go beyond classical principal-agent approaches, and include a coalition of forces in a society. In his innovative ethnographic work, Aldo Civico (2015) has taken the Italian term intreccio (literally: “intertwinement”) as a metaphor for the types of relationships that are forged between paramilitaries and state officials. He argues that:

[T]he intertwinement between illegal actors and the state is an extension of the state’s sovereignty into spaces that are produced as an exteriority that still lives in a natural condition [ . . . ] in other words, it represents an extension of the state’s power not its diminution. (p. 23)

These patrimonial forms of informal power give birth to militias, who operate as a “parallel” or “shadow” state. After all, the Shabbiha’s favorite slogan was always: “We are the fucking state!” (نحن الدولة ولاك). The fact that dense private networks, such as kinship, could cut through formal political institutions and exert decisive influence on the course of the conflict, speaks volumes about their power. As such, Syrian paramilitarism was in no major way different from that in other violent conflicts, such as in Colombia, Yugoslavia, Indonesia, or Côte d’Ivoire.

The Shabbiha massacres in Homs traumatized victim communities in several ways. First and foremost, the violence caused a sharp sectarian polarization within a matter of months. The hackneyed notion that sectarianism or nationalism is not a cause of violence, but a consequence, is a truism, but needs to be revised as neither are mutually exclusive, nor necessarily evidenced by the empirics of the Syrian case. The identities and dispositions of the Shabbiha demonstrate the salience of Alawite identity, in particular a resentment about their history and fears for their future. The hardening of their identity throughout the conflict suggests that the commission of violence produced identity, both inter-ethnically in terms of “othering” Sunnis, and intra-ethnically in terms of transgressive bonding. Furthermore, since the Shabbihawere never reined in by the regime, their power grew exponentially in Homs, and by 2016, Saqqar Rustom was identified as the unofficial “ruler of Homs” (Al-Atassi, 2016). To the middle-class and working-class Sunni and Christian communities of Homs, let alone the opposition, the sight of the Shabbiha taking control of the city was a major shock. The realization that the regime was colluding with them, and profoundly implicated in their crimes by offering widespread impunity, vanquished any sense of justice they still might have had and damaged their social contract with the Syrian state. There were allegations that the regime was running a covert policy of demographic engineering of Homs, by pursuing to reduce the number of Sunnis and increase the power and numbers of Alawites and Shiites (The Syria Institute, 2017).

A second form of trauma was related to social media, which compounded the unprecedented form of cultural trauma inflicted on victim communities in three ways. First, the videotaping of the violence and its aftermath made the victims into eternal victims, as there was now a permanent record of those moments they were being murdered, or their immediate aftermath. Second, Facebook and YouTube empowered the perpetrators in ways beyond the immediate affliction of violence. Online, the Shabbiha openly advocated sectarian calls for violence, threatened Homsis with their power, and showed off trophies of violence. Third, videotaping and killing entered into a very destructive, two-way relationship: not only did they “record to kill,” but they began to “kill to record.” Horrific videos of killings would be made with the explicit aim to send them around to victims’ families and friends, in order to psychologically affect an as broad segment of opposition communities as possible. For example, many combatants and civilians claimed to have seen, with their own eyes, smartphone footage of rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and men. Personally, I have never seen any video footage of actual rape, but the videos of forced nudity, cutting off of sexual organs, and executions were definitely meant to affect public opinion in a broader sense (Della Ratta, 2018).

These effects of sectarianization and social media abuse made an exit from violence very difficult, as they allowed the actors to be “locked” in the power relations of that particular situation. The consequences after 2012 were very serious: an escalating civil war, a crippling siege, and finally a sweeping Pyrrhic victory for the Assad regime.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

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Author biography

Uğur Ümit Üngör (PhD, Amsterdam, 2009) is Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Amsterdam and the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies. His main areas of interest are genocide and mass violence, with a particular focus on the modern and contemporary Middle East. He is an editor of the Journal of Perpetrator Research, and coordinator of the Syrian Oral History Project. His publications include Genocide: New Perspectives on its Causes, Courses and Consequences (Amsterdam University Press, 2016, ed.), Confiscation and Destruction: The Young Turk Seizure of Armenian Property (Continuum, 2011), and the award-winning The Making of Modern Turkey: Nation and State in Eastern Anatolia, 1913–1950 (Oxford University Press, 2011). From 2014 to 2019, Üngör coordinated a Dutch Research Council-funded research project on paramilitarism, which led to the monograph Paramilitarism: Mass Violence in the Shadow of the State(Oxford University Press, 2020). He is currently working on its follow-up monograph Shabbiha: Assad’s Militias and Mass Violence in Syria (forthcoming).

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