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Rebels fear Syria's 'ghost fighters,' the regime's hidden militia

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Soldiers from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) detain alleged "shabiha" members identified as Mehsin Mohamed Ahmed and Mohamed Azezz, from Aleppo, and accuse them of stealing from homes and giving important information to the Syrian regime, in an undisclosed location in the north of Idlib province on June 19, 2012.

NORTHERN SYRIA – Every war has its demons. The chaos of bullets and bombs gives rise to a certain breed of men who join the fight for the thrill of killing, and to stand before begging prisoners and cowering women in damp tattered clothing. 

In Syria these monsters in civilian clothing who are the enforcers for President Bashar Assad’s regime are called the “shabiha.”

I’m staying in one of their family’s homes.

Syria’s ghost-like devils
It’s a small house with a vaulted stone ceiling. The shower is a bucket on the floor that slopes into a drain. There’s an outhouse in the garden with a fig tree.  The house looks like many in this rural village flanked by olive, walnut and almond groves.  

Syrian troops withdraw from 'secondary towns' and pound Aleppo

The shabiha left this village when the army pulled out to re-group and attack Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital and the focus of the battle to control the north of the country. Before they left, there were about 50 shabiha in the village by most rebel counts.  

Some lived among the rebels as spies. Others operated as plainclothes commandoes, arresting rebels or just shooting them and their families. I’ve seen a video of shabiha using a chainsaw to cut off a rebel’s head.  I saw a shabiha prisoner tied up with wires. The rebels accused him of raping 10 girls. The youngest girl was said to be just 14.  

NBC's Richard Engel reports from Syria, where government loyalists are launching a major counter-offensive to maintain control of Aleppo, the nation's largest city, which is considered to be critical to the survival of the Syrian government.

Shabiha is a difficult word to translate into English. It comes from the word Syrians used to describe the luxury Mercedes favored by the Assad family’s operatives that the enforcers of the regime used to move money, smuggle weapons and intimidate opponents.

Whenever someone in a flashy Mercedes with tinted window passed by, Syrians would say the car was a ‘shabah.’  It literally means the car was a ‘ghost,’ mysterious and not to be trifled with. The thugs who drove these phantom cars became known as shabiha – the ghosts who worked in the dictatorship’s deep shadows.  

After the fighting started here the Assad government turned the shabiha into a militia. It armed them and sent them to infiltrate, execute and spy on the rebels. Now the shabiha are more feared than Syrian troops. Their evil has become legendary.  

Rebels talk of the shabiha like devils, deadly as the regime’s chemical gas.  But herein lies the danger. 

Engel: Myth vs. truth in the Syrian conflict

Stringer / Reuters

After months of protests and violent crackdowns, a look back at the violence that has overtaken the country.

Who is really who?
I’m not sure if this house was really owned by any shabiha or their relatives. The owner’s son is accused of being shabiha, but the rebels have no solid proof that he did anything wrong at all. And there’s no proof either that the young man I saw tied up with wires, his eyes covered with a bandana, actually raped any girls.  

Every war has revolutionary justice. Here that justice is carried out in the name of fighting shabiha.  

No one knows exactly how many shabiha work for the regime. If the Assad government falls, the rebels will likely – almost certainly – carry out executions of suspected shabiha.  

A man I spoke to this morning said all shabiha should be executed without mercy, and their property sold and distributed among their victims. The man’s own cousin is among those accused of being shabiha.

CFR.org: What you need to know about the Syria crisis

Slippery slope 
But how will Syrians know when justice is being served or miscarried?  

Machine guns operated by motorcycle brakes? Get a glimpse at the rebels fighting against Assad's forces in Syria's mountainous Jabal al-Zawiya area.

There’s also a disproportionate number of Alawites, accused of being shabiha. The Alawites are the minority Shiite Muslim sect to which Assad belongs and which has held a disproportionate amount of power since his family came to power in 1970. But the Alawites make up only 10 percent of the population, sowing resentment among the country’s Sunni population, who make up the majority of Syria’s 22 million people. 

PhotoBlog: Who are the Syrian rebels? 

Syrians need to prepare for the aftermath if the Assad regime falls. Atrocities that could be considered war crimes have been committed in this country and Syrians should rightly demand that the perpetrators be held accountable.  

But Syrians must be careful not to engage in a murderous campaign of hunting ghosts. The shabiha are real, but they can’t be everywhere.

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