“Women, children and old men were shot dead,” Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told reporters this week. “This is not the response of the heroic Syrian army.”
Then who did kill 108 people in Houla, including 49 children, in cold blood? The answer appears to lie with the armed civilian militias from nearby Alawite villages, who are known to Syrians as shabiha, from the Arabic word for ghosts.
The term initially referred to gangs of smugglers around the city of Latakia in the 1970s, whose immunity from law seemed to come from their tribal and village connections to the ruling al-Assad family.
These early shabiha thrived under the wary eye of former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s father. In the 1980s, with Syrian troops occupying Lebanon and its economy crippled by goods shortages, smuggling goods across the Lebanese border became one of the best ways for well-connected Syrians to make money.
One result of this illicit economy was a reserve army of loosely employed, poor young men from the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam that has proved very useful to a regime that has made paranoia about enemies, real and imagined, the cornerstone of its survival.
In the poor area of Mazzeh in west Damascus, groups of young, largely Alawite men live in accommodation built for them by Hafez al-Assad in the 1980s. As the uprising ignited in March last year, they began to repay their debt to the regime by suppressing dissent. When 20,000 people turned up for an impromptu funeral rally in Mazzeh in February this year, for example, it was the shabiha who, according to demonstrators interviewed in Damascus, fired on the protesters.
Whenever the opposition have attempted any kind of funeral or rally in the capital, lines of men and boys armed with submachine guns appear in nearby streets awaiting an excuse to intervene.
However, it was amid the chaos and sectarian tensions of revolutionary Homs that the shabiha came into their thuggish own. Mohammed, a moderate opposition activist interviewed by the Guardian in February, said the shabiha in Homs accompany the army on raids, but appear to take orders from unknown officials elsewhere.
“They dress in black, or in army khakis, but wear a yellow ribbon on their shoulder,” Mohammed said on Monday.
He said the shabiha moved into his area of al-Shammas on May 13 and perpetrated a massacre; he doesn’t know how many were killed.
As hundreds of thousands of have fled the city, the growing ranks of shabiha have colonized whole neighborhoods.
“They’re vultures,” Mohammed said. “They leave nothing behind.”
Another activist, Abu Rami, speaking from the Bab al-Sebaa area amid audible sniper fire on Monday, said the shabiha often work independently, either in gangs or as snipers on rooftops overlooking rebel areas. About 90 percent of them, he estimated, are poor Alawites from Homs and the surrounding areas, and the result has been to aggravate existing tensions between Sunnis and Alawites in the city.
It is a risky business. The Free Syrian Army has killed many shabiha, he said, but more are lining up to take their place. Many poor Alawites need the money; others will have been persuaded that their country faces a conspiracy by al-Qaeda, the Persian Gulf states and NATO, and the inevitable result will be a Sunni-led pogrom of revenge against their community.