The Western Press uniformly uses a term of contempt: “Shabbeeha” or “Shabeeha”, whenever referring to militias serving the government of Syria. The term “Shabbiha” is explained by most reporters as something equivalent to “thug” although they don’t explain why. But, an explanation is needed since the word is a neologism. The word does not exist in formal Arabic.
Arabic’s verb and noun system is based on a mostly “triliteral” verbs. There are quadriliterals too and, even, pentiliterals which are rare. The 3 root consonants dominate the Arabic language. The word “Shabbeeha” is derived from: Sh b H (ش ب ح). This blog platform does not allow me much flexibility to use the Oxford orthographic system for Arabic script in Latin letters. Let me just note that the “b” is doubled most of the time by native speakers of Levantine Arabic while the last letter, the “H” is an unvoiced pharyngeal fricative.
The word came into vogue during the Lebanese Civil War. I remember first hearing it in the United States when an anti-Syrian Lebanese leftist used it to describe “tough guys” who came in after the Syrian Army left and stayed to clean up. Sometimes, I heard it used in reference to militia entering an area to pacify it when troops were not available.
The root, Sh B H, refers to “ghosts”, “phantoms”, “ethereal creatures” and the like. The actual word in the form of “Shabeeha” does not exist in Arabic. I checked it out in some authoritative dictionaries like “Lisaan Al-Arab”, “Taaj Al-Aroos” and “Lane’s Lexicon” but could not find it. Its most common form is based on Verb Form I as “Shabah”, or ghost. The plural is “Ashbaah” or “Shubooh”.
But, it became pretty obvious to your editor from whence the word came. In the Ba’ath Party political structure there is a youth organization called the “Shabeeba” (Revolutionary Youth Organization) which was established for younger potential candidates for formal Ba’ath Party membership. Similar to the Boy Scouts, but much more political, it selects for very devoted Arab nationalists with progressive, secular tendencies. Fathers or mothers in the Ba’ath Party encourage their children to join the Shabeeba as a sign of loyalty to the party and to offer them a chance to build social bonds with other children. Like the Boy Scouts too, some parents liked to send their children off to camp just to be rid of them for a short time.
The Shabeeba is paramilitary in nature. This cannot be ignored. Similar to many military academies in the U.S., the Shabeeba Organization prepares its members for sevice in the Army or Air Force, not just for the Ba’ath Party. The Party also has a chance to study the behaviors of various young members and promote those who show zeal for nationalism or high intelligence in some field deemed useful to the cause.
There is no question that the word “Shabeeha” is a mot joue or play on words invented by some Lebanese wiseacre at the American University of Beirut (AUB). It smacks of the kind of sarcasm unique to that institution where self-important, privileged, supercilious twerps confuse unctuousness with wit. The word was intended, I think, to lend verbal caricature to individuals who seemed to appear, at times, like ghosts in the night who take form just as mysteriously as they disappear. To the enemies of Syria and the Ba’ath, to the enemies of Arab Nationalism – those who would sell their flag or Palestine to any carpetbagging European – it came to mean “thug”.
Because of their paramilitary training, Shabeeba could be used to assist security forces in times of great stress. The Shabeeba Organization stresses physical fitness. That should be no surprise since on many occasions people would comment about the muscularity or athleticism of the membership. They also are useful as spotters, informants and intelligence gatherers, roles requiring mental acuity and reason.
In Syria today, the Shabeeba are only one part of the militia forces commanded by the Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the Ba’ath Party. We have militia in Syria which have received complete military training similar to that of the army and are taking position alongside soldiers as they beat the feathers out of NATO’s filthy Islamist terrorists. It has been an honor for me to know over 50 members of the Shabeeba in my lifetime. ZAF