The Syrian opposition claims Hula and the adjacent villages were shelled by government artillery. However the UN observers have found that many of the victims had been shot point-blank without any resistance. The regime keeps repeating the old meme about "armed terrorist groups who desire a military intervention". Meanwhile, witnesses are talking of the Shabiha paramilitary groups who are loyal to the government, and who've become a symbol of the brutal atrocity of the regime.
The name Shabiha derives from the Arab word for ghost (shabh), and it suits them well. They don't have a clear structure or central command, they appear suddenly and disappear as quickly. Simply said, it's a group of armed men who go on killing sprees with the tacit support of Assad's regime. They include local criminals, former (or current) members of the secret services, now dressed as civilians; a horde of informants, or just poor and unemployed youngsters (source: Mahmoud Merhi of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights). Using criminals as a tool for suppressing uprisings is nothing new in the region, it has also happened in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and of course Libya.
What's different now is the predominantly religious composition of Shabiha. They mostly originate from the Alawis, the same group that Assad belongs to. They had been very marginalised in the past, but after the Assad dynasty came to power in the 70s, they've quickly risen in the hierarchy and now occupy the tops of all state institutions, the secret services and the military.
The term "ghosts", more precisely "sea ghosts" actually originates from the city of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, where a large Alawi population lives. "Shabiha" was originally the name they used for the thugs who were mostly occupied with racketeering, drug and arms smuggling and other criminal activities. Even today the locals are afraid to pronounce the name loud.
As the discontent with Assad's regime grew, Shabiha got a new function. Obviously the regime had taken its lesson from the Mubarak and Gaddafi failure. Those had directly used the regular military against the protesters, and what they got in return was mass disobedience and defections, and condemnation from the international community. But the composition of these armed groups keeps diversifying, and now the traditional criminal contingent is being joined by ordinary Alawis, scared by the state propaganda into believing that there's an extremist Islamist conspiracy threatening to kill them all. This has resulted in escalating political confrontation that's turning the situation from a political to a religious problem.
Witnesses tell stories of the local authorities arming the villagers from the Alawi mountains surrounding the coastal towns of Baniyas and Tartus as early as a year ago. There were barricades in every small village on the way across those mountains. The villagers were being armed with brand new AKs. The Alawis formed hit squads with no central command and no clear allegiance. Assad's relatives from the Alawi clans joined Shabiha en masse, and gradually gained controlling positions. It's no surprise that the EU has imposed sanctions on the president's cousins Fawwaz and Munzir "for their alleged involvement in the repression against the civilian population as members of the Shabiha".
The people who managed to flee the town of Tel-Kalakh in May last year tell of men dressed in black uniforms who cut the throats of whoever they came across. Some of the attackers were from the nearby town of Qardaha, the birthplace of the Alawi clan of Assad. They were checking the ID cards of the locals, looking for Sunnis. As soon as they recognised a Sunni by their surname, they instantly killed them. The local mosque was then burned down because it carried the name of one of Muhammad's aides who's revered by the Sunni (while the Alawis don't recognise him). So what's been happening to a large extent is based on religion.
An example of the Syrian situation is what happened in Homs (the third largest city) and the adjacent area, including the Taldu village. The Sunnis and Alawis have lived there in segregated communities for many years. With the spread of violence and the arrival of the military, these boundaries collapsed, the Sunnis flocked into the Sunni quarters to stay with their relatives and friends, and flee persecution. But those were then attacked too.
The areas with a high Alawi concentration are where the most arms are being concentrated. The military freely gives out pistols and AKs and scares the Alawis with the well known Islamist bogeyman, and encourages them to shoot on Sunni protesters. So the ordinary vendors and craftsmen are also turned into "Shabiha".
That said, it's too difficult to distinguish which Shabiha actions are directly ordered by the regime. Assad is now far from being in full control of the entire Syrian territory, which puts under question his capability of directing the armed paramilitary Alawites. And in turn, they'd hardly ever trust the vague promises of the predominantly Sunni opposition that their life would be spared if they put down the weapons. The Syrian conflict is starting to look more like an outright religious war, rather than civil conflict. And sadly, the neutral arbiter that's so desperately needed is still nowhere to be seen - either one who could use their authority to bring both sides to the table, or one that would separate them by force without causing an even bigger mess.