Middle East

The Shabiha Militia in Syria

Children lying in a morgue in Houla, Syria, waiting to be buried.

On May 25, 108 people, including 49 children and 34 women, were killed in two opposition-controlled villages north of Homs, in the Houla region of Syria. While a small proportion of the deaths appeared to have resulted from artillery and tank rounds used against the villages, the United Nations later announced that most of the massacre's victims had been "summarily executed in two separate incidents," and that the Shabiha were the most likely perpetrators. "Entire families were shot in their houses."

One opposition activist from the area, Hamza Omar, told the BBC, "The Shabiha militias attacked the houses. They had no mercy. We took pictures of children, under 10, their hands tied, and shot at close range."

The 15 nations of the U.N. Security Council unanimously condemned the massacre, with Syrian allies Russia and China agreeing to a resolution on the Syrian conflict for the first time. The other 13 nations jointly expelled Syrian ambassadors and diplomats, a move Syria's state-run media denounced as "unprecedented hysteria."

The U.N. Security Council issued a statement saying that "such outrageous use of force against the civilian population constitutes a violation of applicable international law."

While the world, including the Assad government and its allies in Moscow, has deplored the massacre, there are sharp divisions over who is responsible. The Syrian government blames armed gangs for the killings, the vast majority apparently carried out at close range. However, the Syrian opposition, its international allies and human rights groups say the atrocity was primarily the work of the shadowy and much-feared group of pro-government militiamen known as the Shabiha, who have been playing an expanding role in the country's deepening conflict.

"With the regime basically relinquishing control over some rural areas, it's easier to send in the Shabiha than it is to send in the regular army," said Emile Hokayem, an analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies. "They are a better tool for retribution—and you are going to see them operating in the country a lot more."

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the United States also believes it is "not ambiguous" that the massacre was carried out "by every indication, by the Shabiha militias acting on behalf of the government. We think it is quite clear-cut, and we think there needs to be justice and accountability for those who committed these atrocities." Rice went on to say, "We certainly agree with [special envoy to Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League] Kofi Annan that this is a moment where we have reached, in effect, a tipping point."

"I think we may be beginning to see the wheels coming off of this bus," Rice said. "And that means that what happens next and the steps that are taken by the Syrian authorities and by this council could well be dispositive." She added, "The political process, which is so crucial to the success of any transition, which is the purpose of the Annan plan, is thwarted by the ongoing, escalating, expanding violence perpetrated by the government, and the reality that the opposition cannot possibly be expected to come to the table while the violence is intensifying, escalating and the government is lying about it."

The massacre drew harsh criticism even from Syria's closest ally Iran. "I'm not excluding anyone from this responsibility," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told France 24.

Sana, the Syrian Arab News Agency in Damascus, Syria, reported that Russia's Permanent Representative to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin said, "Russia will do the right thing for Syria, the Syrian people, the Russian Federation and the international community."

The Syrian National Council, the opposition body of the Syrian Spring, issued a statement saying that Assad must step down if Annan's peace plan is to be saved, and that Moscow's stance encourages Syria to commit "savage crimes.'

According to today's Los Angeles Times, "Syria's honorary consul general in California said he has defected from the regime of President Bashar Assad in protest of the killings last week in the town of Houla."

The Shabiha attacked and killed protesters during the Syrian uprising last year. In April 2011, Wissam Tarif, director of the human rights group Insan, said the Shabiha was operating in Homs. In May 2011, Ahed Al Hendi of the Council on Foreign Relations reported that the Shabiha attacked civilians in the cities of Banias, Jableh and Latakia.

On May 3, 2011, Ahed Al Hendi wrote in Foreign Affairs that the Shabiha is headed in the coastal cities "by Assad's first cousins, Fawaz al-Assad and Munzer al-Assad."

While no nation is openly pushing for military action, French President Francois Hollande is among those who have said this could change if the U.N. Security Council backed it. But that is not possible unless veto-wielding members Russia and China change their positions.

U.N. Major-General Robert Mood, the Norwegian head of the observer mission, told the BBC that monitors are continuing their investigations to try and uncover the truth about what the Security Council has called an "appalling and brutal crime." 

Ms. Teri Schure is the founder of Worldpress.org, lectures on issues pertaining to publishing, and is a consultant in the magazine, web development and marketing industries.

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