Shabiha pursuing protesters at Aleppo University, 16 May 2012
"Women, children and old men were shot dead," Syria's foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, told reporters this week. "This is not the response of the heroic Syrian army."
Then who did kill 108 people in Houla, including 49 children, in cold blood? The answer appears to lie with the armed civilian militias from nearby Alawite villages, who are known to Syrians as shabiha, from the Arabic word for ghosts.
The term initially referred to shadowy gangs of smugglers who grew up around the coastal city of Latakia in the 1970s, and whose immunity from law seemed to come from their tribal and village connections to the ruling Assad family.