In the early years of Syria’s brutal conflict, top government officials established and directed paramilitary groups known as “shabbiha” to help the state crack down on opponents, war crimes investigators say.
In a report, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) published seven documents its investigators said showed the highest levels of Syria’s government “planned, organised, instigated and deployed” the “shabbiha” from the start of the war in 2011.
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UN investigators in 2012 concluded there were reasonable grounds to believe “shabbiha” militias committed crimes against humanity, including murder and torture, and war crimes such as arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence and pillaging.
CIJA’s cache does not contain direct written orders to commit atrocities.
The Syrian government did not respond to a request for comment. It has previously blamed opposition fighters for several mass killings studied by CIJA in the report. The government has not publicly commented on the shabbiha, which means “ghosts” in Arabic, or whether it had any role in organising the group.
Dating from as early as January 2011 – the first days of the protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule – the documents detail the creation of so-called Popular Committees, groups that incorporated regime supporters already known as shabbiha into the security apparatus, and trained, instructed and armed them, the report said.
The documents include instructions on March 2, 2011 – from military intelligence to local authorities via Security Committees run by al-Assad’s Baath party leaders – to “mobilise” informers, grassroots organisations, and so-called friends of the government. In further documents, in April, they were ordered to form them into Popular Committees.
They also contained instructions in April, May and August, 2011 to Popular Committees from the newly established Central Crisis Management Committee (CCMC) – a mix of security forces, intelligence agencies, and top officials that reported directly to al-Assad, the report said.
One of CCMC’s first directives, dated April 18, 2011, and included in full in the report, ordered the Popular Committees to be trained on how to use weapons against demonstrators, as well as how to arrest and hand them over to government forces.
A German regional court in 2021, in a case against a Syrian intelligence services official, said in its judgment the CCMC was established in March 2011, reporting to al-Assad as an ad hoc body composed of senior leaders of the security forces.
A US district court found in 2019 in a civil case al-Assad himself established the CCMC, which the court called “the highest national security body in the Syrian government” and “comprised of senior members of the government”.
The report also draws on dozens of other papers collected from government or military facilities after territory fell to the rebels. CIJA has not released all the documents it quotes from, saying some are being used in ongoing investigations in European countries.
The documents showed the government created the militias “from day one”, rather than latching onto pre-existing grassroots groups, as scholars of the Syrian war previously thought, said Ugur Ungor, an expert on Syrian paramilitaries and a professor of Holocaust and Genocide studies at the Dutch NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, who has reviewed the documents in CIJA’s new report.
Some human rights scholars who have studied the role of the shabbiha in the Syrian war say the al-Assad regime initially used the groups to distance itself from violence on the ground.
“The regime did not want the security forces and army to be pictured doing these things,” said Fadel Abdul Ghany, chair of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a UK-based advocacy group.
No shabbiha members have been brought to trial in international courts. Ghany, who reviewed the documents, said they could help build such cases.
One of CIJA’s directors Nerma Jelacic said, “Here you have the paper trail that shows how these units were mobilised.”
CIJA is a nonprofit founded by a veteran war crimes investigator and staffed by international criminal lawyers who have worked in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Cambodia. Its evidence on Syria has previously been used in court cases against regime officials conducted in Germany, France, Sweden, and the Netherlands.
‘Up against the wall’
CIJA named nine massacres in Syria the reports said involved pro-government militias, including in the neighbourhood of Karm al-Zeytoun in the city of Homs in March 2012.
One Syrian man, who asked not to be named as he feared reprisals against relatives still living in government-held zones in Syria, said his wife and five children were among those killed there.
“The shabbiha put them up against the wall, tried to violate them, then shot them,” he said. At the time, he joined a rebel group and was in a nearby district, al-Adawiya – where another massacre had just taken place, also cited by CIJA.
“The moment I heard that my kids were dead, I was holding a six-month-old baby that had just been killed in Adawiya. So I was imagining what had happened to my kids,” he said, speaking by telephone from within a rebel-held enclave in northern Syria.
The CIJA documents showed tensions between some branches of the security forces and some Popular Committees as reports of abuses spread – but rather than rein-in the militias, the security forces issued instructions to not oppose them.
CIJA’s Syria team of 45 people studied the documents to detail the growth of the shabbiha groups from neigbourhood-level loyalist groups to a well-organised militia, and later a parallel wing of the army called the National Defence Force (NDF).
While there is no international war crimes court with jurisdiction over Syria’s conflict, there are a number of so-called universal jurisdiction cases in countries like the Netherlands, Sweden, France and Germany which have laws allowing them to prosecute war crimes even if they are committed elsewhere.
Ghany said the documents were “necessary” pieces of evidence linking the shabbiha to the state in international justice cases.
“These documents make it possible to pursue people legally – if there are individuals in European countries then a case can be brought against them,” he said.