August 7, 2012

The "ghosts" - Bashar al-Asad's thugs

Everyday brings new stories of fighting and defections in Syria, like the recent defection of the Syrian prime minister to the opposition via Jordan. The situation continues to deteriorate - it saddens those of us who once lived there and grew close to many Syrians, despite the oppressive Ba'th regime.

There is a story in the Arabic press about a young Syrian who has survived capture, torture and an attempted killing at the hands of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad's thugs, more commonly called the shabiha', the "ghosts." This is a loyalist militia willing to do the worst deeds against the Syrian people in support of the al-Asad regime.

I read this particular report with mixed emotions.

The author with a friend in 'Anadan, Syria

According to the report, the man is being cared for in a makeshift hospital in what is normally a wedding hall in 'Anadan, about 10 miles northwest of Aleppo. I have been to the wedding hall (see photo - I have blurred the face of my companion for her safety). My wife and I were invited a wedding reception at the facility, granted, it was a different time.

It was a place of celebration, albeit in a time of the rule of a previous yet related dictator - the father of the current president, Hafiz al-Asad. There were no political discussions in public, but usually after sharing a few(?) glasses of 'araq (anise liquor), you could pry honest opinions out of the Syrians. I often referred to the hosting drinks for my Syrian friends as "the things I do for my country."

On a serious note, this young Syrian rebel found himself in the hands of Bashar's thugs, or in Arabic "the ghosts." The Syrian opposition translates the word as thug, but it really means ghost.* They are a volunteer militia totally committed to the survival of the al-Asad regime. Many of them are in positions that are beholden to Bashar or his cronies - removal of the regime means a loss of status or income.

I would make an analogy between the shabiha' and the Iraqi saddam fada'iyin of 2003. The Saddam Fada'iyin were an organized, paid and well-equipped militia loyal only to Saddam Husayn and his son 'Uday. The shabiha' are an organized, paid and well-equipped militia loyal only to Bashar al-Asad and have demonstrated the willingness to commit unspeakable acts of cruelty on fellow Syrians in support of the regime.

I suspect these "ghosts" have determined that their future is tied to the survival of the current regime. The thought of having to actually make an honest living scares them. Without the Ba'th party in place to guarantee the corruption off which they live, they will have limited opportunities since most of them are uneducated Party hacks.

I also suspect that when Bashar al-Asad is brought to justice, there will be a special brand of justice awaiting these thugs as well. Does the fate of Mu'amar al-Qadhafi come to mind?

* A form of the same word, shabh is what the Saudis called the U.S. Air Force F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter during Desert Storm.