How Bashar al-Assad created the feared shabiha militia: an insider speaks
A former Assad regime insider has given the first direct account of how Syria's ruling family created the feared shabiha militia that is blamed for some of the worst atrocities of the civil war, and gave it orders to kill or torture anti-regime protesters.
Abdul Salam, a former close ally of Rami Makhlouf, the president's cousin, has described how he attended meetings in which Mr Makhlouf and Maher al-Assad, the president's brother, planned "the making of the shabiha" - and others in which they commanded it to do their "dirty work" by shooting unarmed opposition activists.
His testimony to The Telegraph, given in eastern Turkey, provides a unique first-hand glimpse into the inner workings of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It could prove valuable for United Nations war crimes investigators currently gathering evidence to be used should the Syrian leadership be brought to trial for war crimes in the International Criminal Court.
Over the past three years the shabiha militia have reigned with violence and impunity, destroying entire villages by setting fire to homes or looting them, and raping, torturing and slitting the throats of inhabitants suspected of opposing the regime.
Although UN investigators have pointed to cases where the militia have seemed to operate alongside the Syrian military, a direct chain of command from the Syrian leadership has never been explicitly shown.
The account by Mr Salam intimately details, for the first time, how at the beginning of the uprising in 2011 the Syrian leadership decided to create a paramilitary force - secretly commanded by them - that could attack anti-government protesters.
It relates how they appointed leaders for militias across the country; released prisoners from "death row" to join the force; and then provided the financing and the weapons that they needed in order to act.
"I was one of eight people invited by Maher and Rami to meet in 2011," said Mr Salam, who, for his own protection spoke to the Telegraph using a pseudonym. "They are the brains behind the shabiha operation. They offered us money, weapons, anything we needed [to form the militias]."
For decades, Mr Salam had been a partner of Mr Makhlouf, one of the most powerful businessmen in Syria, and soon became one of Syria's biggest weapons dealers.
He was part of the original "shabiha", a term that at the time referred to smugglers and racketeers, mostly operating from the coastal Alawite heartland province of Latakia. An official blind eye was turned to their use of smuggling routes to import and export goods illicitly, in exchange for their loyalty to the government.
The war, and a personal feud with another friend of Mr Makhlouf, broke down those relationships. Now, living in hiding and under armed protection, Mr Salam gave a rare insight into how in 2011 members of the president's inner circle converted the "shabiha" from a smuggling ring into a violent militia force.
As anti-government protests erupted in the southern city of Deraa, and spread across the country, the hardliners in the Assad family, led by Maher al-Assad, who commands the elite fourth armoured division of the military, stepped in to take the lead from the president, said Mr Salam. "It's Maher who has the real power now."
In May 2011 a video was posted to YouTube which purported to show Maher, surrounded by security officials, firing live rounds at unarmed protests in the Barzeh neighbourhood of Damascus. That same month the European Union imposed sanctions against Maher, describing him as the "principal overseer of violence against demonstrators".
But his role in the attacks was only set to increase. Two months later, in July, Mr Salam received a call from Mr Makhlouf. "I was invited to a meeting in Damascus. Maher and Rami led it," he recalled.
"They told us they were worried that the army, in front of the world's media, couldn't use the necessary force to stop the protests. They couldn't be seen to be shooting the protestors. So their idea was: 'Let's keep our hands clean and create a paramilitary group to do the dirty work.'
"They wanted to put each of us in charge of the shabiha militia in different parts of the country. They briefed us that the shabiha should set out to terrify protesters. They really believed they could scare the opposition into submission and that soon everyone would go home."
Syrian officials have consistently denied using pro-regime militiamen to intensify the crackdown on protesters and commit atrocities on its behalf.
However, Mr Salam said the order he was given in that meeting were "specific". "They told us to kill protesters, armed or unarmed, and top 'torture those you capture'," he said.
The meeting then moved to the details of how militia would be created, and where to recruit its fighter.
Mr Salam said: "Maher told us we could source shabiha for our units from prisoners held in Homs and Tartous jails. Most Alawites who were on death row for their crimes were suddenly released. Once released, the ex-convicts did not have a choice; they were paid salaries but ordered to join the shabiha."
Though The Telegraph cannot independently verify the claims made by Mr Salam about the meeting, the paper has received outside assurances from trusted sources that Mr Salam's claimed connections to Mr Makhlouf are genuine. Other specific details that he gave, such as the locations of bases for the shabiha in Aleppo and the names of local militia leaders, have also been independently confirmed.
In the months that followed, the shabiha burgeoned from a few plain clothes loyalists, to gangs that roamed each village and town in Syria, catching anyone suspected of opposing President Assad.
They were supplied with guns, and told there are no limits to what they could do. In 2012, The Telegraph met one shabiha who told of how he had raped and killed a female university student in Aleppo. Intoxicated by alcohol and the sense of being able to act with impunity, he and his boss had simply grabbed the girl from the street and taken her to an abandoned building.
When they were finished, they shot her.
In 2012 the UN issued a damning, 102-page report accusing the Syrian government forces and shabiha fighters of committing war crimes in the torture and the massacre of more than 100 civilians, almost half of them children, near the Sunni town of Houla in May.
Mr Salam, who at the meeting declined the offer to lead a shabiha group, said he still witnessed some of this brutality first hand. In early 2012, he visited Ali Qasaq, a colleague who had become of the leader of the shabiha in the northern city of Aleppo.
He went to their headquarters in Aleppo. A former sports centre in al-Sleimanie district has been converted into an operating base for several hundred militia men.
"This is where victims are taken. I was disgusted by what I saw," said Mr Salam. "I watched Ali Qasaq and a friend of his torture a 15 year-old boy.
"They both had beers in one hand and, holding penknives in the other, they slowly and sadistically stabbed the boy who was tied up. They laughed every time he screamed in pain."
One of the youngest shabiha in the sports centre in Aleppo is just 16 years old, said Mr Salam. Already he has learned to torture, using knives and beating with sticks and electric cables. When the shabiha's victims die, Mr Salam said, the bodies are dumped in a river 300 yards from the base, and are left to float away downstream.
It was these kinds of acts that the shabiha leaders would later brief Maher al-Assad and Mr Makhlouf about, said Mr Salam. Qasaq and other commanders across the country would fly to Damascus "every six months" to make their reports. Sometimes, they would be given "hit lists" of people to assassinate. "These would usually be tribal or religious leaders who had spoken against the government," he said.
Watching Qasaq torture his victims Mr Salam's stomach turned. Disgusted with what he saw, he decided that Qasaq had gone "too far".
"I sent some of my men to kidnap Qasaq," he said. "But they were caught and tortured, so he found out it was me who sent them. At that point I knew I had to leave Syria."
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