Musclebound militiamen pumped up on steroids are keeping Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad in power - and carrying out massacres so his government troops won't be blamed.
The Shabiha militiamen - from the Arabic word "shabah" or "ghost" - are described as low-IQ thugs who love their tattoos and black T-shirts as much as their machetes and AK-47s. They fight for Assad for a mere $200 a day.
"They were like monsters," said Dr. Mousab Azzawi, who treated some of them in the port city of Latakia before becoming a leader of the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
"They had huge muscles and big bellies and beards. They took steroids to pump up their bodies," he said. "I had to talk to them like children because the Shabiha like people with low intelligence."
"But that is what makes them so terrifying - the combination of brute strength and blind allegiance to the regime,'' he added.
Human rights activists say the Shabiha grew out of drug trafficking rings based in Latakia to become the ruthless muscle of the Assad machine.
"The Shabiha are those who carry out the regime's dirty work. The government can say, 'This is not me, I am not responsible,' " Fabrice Balanche, director of the French Research Center Gremmo, told the AFP news agency.
The Assad regime has been stung by defections by troops who won't fire on fellow Syrians, so it has relied increasingly on the estimated 6,000 Shabiha in Syria.
"An officer or soldier might refuse orders to kill," activist Dany Hamwi told AFP. "But a Shabih is loyal to the end."
The militiamen are believed to have carried out the massacre of 108 people in the town of Houla last month.
Meanwhile, new evidence of the brutality of the Assad regime came from the United Nations, which said yesterday that the Shabiha and government forces killed, maimed, tortured and detained children as young as 9.
"There's been extraordinary violence against children in Syria," said Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN special envoy for children and armed conflict.
When Shabiha members and government troops raided the village of Ayn Larouz in March, they seized children as young as 8 and put them in the front windows of their buses to serve as human shields, investigators said.
The pro-Assad forces left four days later, but not until they had shot and killed two boys, 14 and 16, along with two other people who had been among 34 arrested.
Human Rights Watch estimates that 1,176 children have been killed so far in the 15-month-old uprising, including 49 in the Houla massacre.