It was reported that the fourth regiment of Maher al-Assad, Bashar’s pro-Iran brother, was in Latakia after it withdrew from Daraa, having left the city to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
The two parties collided without weapons, and suddenly, random gunshots broke out and targeted all: Sunnis, Alawites, and security.
Subsequently, buses and cars filled with al-Shabbeeha arrived, and the men started opening fire from automatic rifles on the protesters, while being protected from Maher’s regiment. Then, according to reports from Latakia, they started stopping people on the streets, and confronting students in college dorms, reportedly executing selected Sunnis among them.
Later, al-Shabbeeha started going village to village, alley to alley, spreading terror wherever they went in what some observers in Damascus have called a bid to spur sectarian hatred.
Some neighborhoods have started to organize to protect their families and properties by arming themselves and blocking the entrances to their alleys with cars and trash containers.
Internet and cell phones users learned that some members of al-Shabbeeha have been tracked down, using their car models and license plates on social-media networks, and finally some were apprehended.
The first evidence that the regime was playing the sectarian card was a speech by Buthaina Shabaan, the media adviser to the president, in which she claimed that Palestinian Islamists were responsible for the shootings in Daraa.
Buhtaina Shaaban’s speech was followed by many from Muslim leaders, such as mufti Ahmad Hassoun.
Among the ironies is the fact that the regime had been trying to bolster its secular image in the past decade, and had never used religious leaders to represent it.
The violent manifestation of this sectarian card, however, is the unleashing of al-Shabbeeha gangs, who are killing and pillaging in the Sunni areas in Latakia.
Many Syrians who demanded only reforms in the beginning, are now supporting a full-scale revolution that aims to topple each and every single symbol of the current regime, including the flag.
Some analysts believe that the British-educated president would bring modernism and reforms to the country. That cultivated image has been smashed by some of the atrocities already committed.
Many commentators believe that only a fate like that of Saddam and his sons would satisfy the masses now.
Al-Shabbeeha gang members are not nihilists. Leading members have ties to ranking Alawite officers in the Syrian internal security forces and the Ministry of Interior.
The gang originated in the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartous and started expanding from there.
Its main activities are armed robbery, grand theft auto, smuggling, and drug dealing.
In the past decade, the al-Shabbeeha gang managed to steal hundreds of cars and around a dozen cargo trucks without being stopped by the police. The automobiles get refurbished and sold in Iraq.
The gang comprises the third generation of the old guard, headed by Nameer al-Assad, son of Bade’a al-Assad, one of President Bashar Assad’s cousins.
Nameer is a third generation Assad, born in Kirdaha, the headquarters of all the Assad family after the grandfather of Hafez al-Assad settled there.
The original name of the family wasn’t Assad (Lion), it was Wahsh (Monster). There are unconfirmed reports that the families are non-Arab immigrants who arrived in Latakia early in the 20th century.
Nameer is the second in the command chain of al-Shabbeeha gang, the head is a relative only known by his nickname, “Sheikh al-Jabel”, (Chief of the Mountain).
The gang flourished in the coasts of Syria and in Lebanon after President Bashar Assad came into power. However, their reign in Lebanon was short-lived as the Syrian army withdrew just as al-Shabbeeha were gaining ground there, causing their focus to shift to Damascus.
Nameer’s name first came to light in 2005, when he attacked a military car transporting an incarcerated member of his gang and freed him in a Hollywood action movie manner. His gang used three cars with Presidential Palace (Republican Palace as it is called here) license plates to execute the plan.
Among the biggest robberies committed by his gang were the summer 2004 Samir Amis hotel robbery and the February 2005 al-Haram money gram robbery, both in Damascus.
In his 2005 robbery, Nameer and his gang were caught on tape stealing around US $900,000 using automatic rifles in broad daylight.
He was arrested, but then of course, he was let go after less than a month in incarceration. It had always been easy for Nameer to leave prison just by dropping his family name and paying a bribe. His cousin the president knew and did not seem to mind.