Assad may be losing control over his deadly militias

The prevalence of the term shabiha to describe regime thugs gives the mistaken impression that they are all similarly aligned and loyal to the government. That is not always the case. Most of the proregime militias around the country are regionally based and funded by local businessmen or religious leaders eager to curry favor with the government and shore up their own protection networks. Like the word mafia, which is a close usage equivalent in English, shabiha has its origins in the loose-knit smuggling and organized-crime networks of Latakia province, the coastal enclave where Assad’s Alawite sect dominates. These days, shabiha are just as likely to be Sunni, Kurdish or even Eastern Orthodox Christian as Alawite, says Lund. Some gangs have been organized into Popular Committees, a kind of armed neighborhood watch with independent leadership and few centralized directives other than to defend the regime in whatever way they deem necessary. In many cases this means setting up roadblocks, taking bribes, charging protection money, looting the homes and businesses of suspected rebels and otherwise raising funds to cover their costs by dint of their weapons. “When these gangs can’t get financing from the government they start extorting the local communities,” says Lund. That enables them to keep fighting, but it also means they are less beholden to Assad. “The government has more important things to do than put a stop to it.”

According to a Syrian businessman close to the regime, Assad is aware of the growing threat of Syria’s militias and has struggled, inadequately, to contain it. Assad’s father, former President Hafez Assad, was similarly plagued by the predations of Latakia’s shabiha gangs throughout the 1980s and ’90s, and only managed to quash their strength near the end of his reign, in 2000. Bashar Assad’s success in keeping them reined in when he inherited the presidency from his father is now being undone, says the businessman who spoke to TIME on condition of anonymity. “[Assad] is telling his friends, ‘I managed to contain these groups for over 10 years. Now that they are unleashed, I can’t stop them.”