By Omar Ibrahim
On December 30, 2012, the Syrian national soccer team was received by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in his People’s Palace, an exquisite fortress overlooking the Syrian capital from Mt. Mezzeh. The president congratulated the team for its first-time winning of the West Asian Football Federation Championship, and rewarded each player with an apartment, a job, and SYP150,000 (USD1500). Among the red-clad players who queued up to shake Assad’s hand was 31-year-old Mosab Balhous, the national team’s goalkeeper and former goalkeeper of Homs-based Al-Karamah SC.
Their smiling exchange put a good face on a harsher history: 17 months earlier, on August 2, 2011, the president’s security forces had arrested Balhous on charges of sheltering armed gangs and possessing suspicious amounts of money. The goalkeeper’s home city of Homs, popularly dubbed the “Capital of the revolution”, has been under regime attack since April 2011, and its Baba Amr district has served as a refuge for army defectors.
Now, with civil war devouring Syria for a fifth year, Syrian soccer seemed to be doing fine. Thanks to the Assad regime’s calculated support, three of its national teams and two local clubs have qualified for regional and international tournaments. These wins serve a distinct political purpose: a victorious soccer team burnishes Assad’s credentials as a secular leader still in control of his country, in stark contrast to the Islamic State (IS), which flogs people for wearing soccer jerseys.
The Rulers of the Game
Today, 14 clubs play in the highest division in the country. In April 2015, Syria’s National Soccer Team jumped 26 places in the FIFA World Ranking to 126th internationally and 15th on the Asian level; in May, it rose further to 125th. The national team also made it to the second round of qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the 2019 Asia Cup, while the Olympic Soccer Team qualified for the finals of the 2016 AFC U-23 Asian Cup in Qatar. Syria's Junior Soccer Team has qualified for the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile, and Al-Jaish and Al-Wahda clubs for the advanced stages of the Asian Cup Championship.
These successes have come despite international sanctions on Syria, which have resulted in FIFA freezing $2,250,000 according to the Syrian General Sports Federation (GSF) though experts believe it could be much more that was earmarked for the Syrian Football Association (SFA). The Assad regime is working to prove that this money will only go towards developing soccer and will not be used to fund political or military activities. The Baath Party, the country’s official ruling party, nonetheless, continues to control sports. GSF sources said that party appoint GSF members.
State investment in soccer also continues although no hard data is available. GSF president Maj. Gen. Muwafaq Jomaa said last March that 30% of the sports budget went to soccer and the rest was allocated to 29 other disciplines. “We thank the political leadership and the government for the support. Sports have become politics, art and a national state [through which] we [in GSF] represent our dear homeland [abroad] in an honest way,” Jomaa told he state-run Al-Ikhbaria television 
Control is further exercised through the GSF’s refusal to give the SFA independent authority over its own budget. The GSF has accused the SFA of trying to form “another republic inside the GSF” on the back of FIFA’s ban on government interference. “The GSF, the government and the political leadership [the National Security Bureau of the Baath Party] do not accept that the SFA is subordinated to the FIFA. This is against [our] laws. If there are regulations from the FIFA that the SFA has to apply, it has to apply it. We do not mind that,” Jomaa said.
A Favorite Fiefdom
Soccer has long been the most popular game in Syria, and as such a favorite tool for the regime’s self-promotion. In 1981, the late president Hafiz al-Assad issued a series of decrees that ensured social and financial security for champion athletes who finished in any of the first three places at the Arab, Asian, Mediterranean and Olympic Games. Five years after the Hama massacre of 1982, in which Syrian Army units in a brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood razed the city and killed as many as 40,000 residents, the late president told14 guest countries participating in the 10th Mediterranean Games in Latakia that “we want the land [of Syria to be] a land of peace and friendship…the [Mediterranean] Sea to be a sea of peace and friendship with seagulls flying over it, not planes of murder and destruction…[and] the Mediterranean region to be the nucleus of the World’s peace, from which doves of peace are released to spread in the sky.”
Syrian media played up Syria’s defeat of France 2:1 despite the fact that the games cost Syria $300 million it could ill-afford in a time of economic downturn. Keeping that memory alive proved at times easier said than done. Hafez Al-Assad’s eldest son Basil, an avid equestrian who headed an annual tournament in commemoration of the soccer victory, lost a horse race in 1993 to Adnan Qassar, the leader of the Syrian equestrian team. Qassar was promptly arrested on charges of attempting to assassinate Basil and imprisoned without trial for 21 years in Tadmur prison. He was finally released in June 2014 by a presidential amnesty granted by Basil’s younger brother Bashar, who inherited the presidency in 2000 after the death of his father and the earlier passing of his brother in a car crash.
Syria’s most feared informal militias, or shabiha, formed in the eighties from the ranks of Assad relatives and supporters, also kept a hand in local athletics, including soccer. Their founder, Fawaz al-Assad, was a cousin of the late president and controlled the port of Latakia with its smuggling routes. Fawaz was also a supporter of the city’s Tishreen soccer team before becoming its honorary president. Latakia soccer fans recall Fawaz coming once to the Al-Assad Stadium with a helicopter and talks with the referees before the game to ensure that his team would win the game.
Bashar al-Assad carried on his elders’ tradition of using an unsporting degree of force against opponents, athletic and otherwise. In mid-March, 2004, around 40 Kurdish civilians were killed in Qamishli, northeast Syria, after riots broke out between Kurdish and Arab soccer fans. Hundreds of Kurds were injured and around 2,000 were tortured in the regime’s jails after they had demanded an investigation into the forced disappearance of Kurdish civil society activist and Sunni religious leader Sheikh Mashook al-Khaznawi. In June 2005, the Kurdish protests erupted again against alleged government's involvement in the assassination of Khaznawi.
Soccer also figured prominently in government efforts to manage relations with neighboring countries in the wake of the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri allegedly at Syria’s behest as well as with domestic critics opposed to the regime’s decision to liberalize the economy. Al-Assad more frequently attended soccer matches where fans chanted, “Oh, Bashar, raise your hand!,” a request he gladly honored.
Blood on the Field
The eruption in 2011 of mass anti-government protests triggered by the arrest and torture of school-age children in Dera’a who wrote anti-government graffiti on walls set Syria on a path of civil war that significantly weakened the Assad regime and virtually destroyed the country. Mahmoud al-Jawabra, a 24-year old player for Dera’a’s Al-Shouleh SC who was among four demonstrators killed by security forces four days after the arrests became an icon of the initially peaceful protestors and the first casualty of the revolt.
The Dera’a protests quickly spread to other Syrian cities, where Assad’s forces turned sports stadiums into detention centers and military bases. Damascus’ Abbasiyyin Stadium, which had hosted a holy mass by Pope John Paul II in 2001, has since been used as a military base from which the Syrian Army launches rockets into neighboring opposition-controlled districts such as Ghouta and Douma.
Al-Jawabra was soon joined by other athletes who opposed the regime, including Ghazi Zoghaib, the head of Al-Karamah and former head of the Homs branch of the Baath Party; his wife in Baba Amr; Al-Karamah soccer player Ahmad Suwaidan who was killed during the military’s shelling of the Al-Karabees neighborhood of Homs; Al-Karamah and Syrian Junior Soccer Team player Abdul Rahman Al-Sabbouh killed in a massacre in Baba Amr; and Homs’ Al Wathbah SC player Youssef Suleiman, a player from the Homs-based al-Wathbah Club killed in a mortar attack near Tishreen Stadium in central Damascus; In May 2013, the photo of the body of Ahmad Othman a 14-year-old Syrian boy wearing an FC Barcelona soccer jersey, went viral on social media. Othman and his family had been killed when Assad’s forces shelled the town of al-Baydah near Banyas.
The General Association for Sports and Youth in Syria (GASY) , an opposition sports organization, has documented the killing of 217 Syrian athletic personnel who have been killed in the war so far. GASY blames the Assad’s regime for those losses. Images of several athletes were found in late March and early April among leaked pictures of bodies of people tortured and killed in the regime’s jails. Among pictures circulated by activists circulated were the remains of Mohammad Abdul Rahman Zarefeh , Syria’s Judo Champion and National Team player; Iyad Quaider, an al-Wahda player; and Louay al-Omar, a former player at al-Karamah.
Their pictures were among 55,000 images of 11,000 dead prisoners smuggled out by a former military police photographer who called himself Caesar. A report based on this evidence produced by three former international prosecutors and sponsored by Qatar asserted that the Syrian regime had systematically killed and tortured about 11,000 people.
The regime denies responsibility and has charged that athletes had been killed by terrorist groups. It asserted, for example, that basketball player-coach Nour Aslou was killed in February as she left the Al-Assad Sports Hall in Aleppo by a terrorist sniper. Opposition forces rejected the accusation, saying that the area where Aslou was killed was more than 2 km away from opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo. By the same token, opposition forces have taken credit for the killing of athletes such as Syrian boxing champion Ghiath Tayfour who was accused of cooperating with security forces against protesters.
Protest chants when the demonstrations first erupted in 2011, were often based on popular football songs composed by national youth soccer team goalkeeper Abdul Baset Al-Saroot, a leader of the revolt in Homs. Together with another player, Tarek Intabli, a left-winger at Homs’ Al-Wathbah SC, Al-Saroot was among the Homs rebels who negotiated an initial withdrawal the Syrian Army from the city. Intabli was killed in March 2015 in a rebel effort to take control of Idlib. Al-Saroot, following the killing by security forces of his four brothers and an uncle, swore allegiance to IS in late 2014. IS-affiliated Twitter accounts denounced him five months later as "a traitor to Islam" for leaving IS to join Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al Qaeda and a major opponent of IS.
A Vicious Tie
In February, Assad insisted that Syria is not a failed state “as long as the government and state institutions are fulfilling their duty towards the Syrian people”. By promoting its soccer achievements, the regime aims to show that Syria is a state where the army is in control and institutions are functioning. The basis of this projection is the regime’s control over central Damascus and other city centers, primarily Homs and the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartous.
Projection of the regime’s strength on the pitch is focused on the performance of clubs like Al-Jaish (The Army), which is sponsored by the Defense Ministry and qualified for the quarter-finals of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup.  Another regime darling, Al-Wahda, failed to qualify after it was defeated by Tajikistan’s Istiqlol football in a 4-2 penalty shootout. Al-Wahda is sponsored by Muhammad Hamsho on whom the United States has imposed sanction for allegedly fronting for Assad’s brother, Gen. Maher al-Assad in financial transactions and the acquisition of wealth through cronyism. Al-Wahda won the Premier League Championship in 2014 after defeating Al-Jaish and in July 2015 qualified for the finals of the Republic Football Cup. The performance of the two clubs despite the war highlighted the importance the regime attributes to Damascus where wealth, development, security, and mass mobilization has been concentrated in the past.
The clubs’ successes failed however to mask the devastation of more than four years of war in which more than 200,000 people have been killed, more than nine million people have lost their homes, and 90% of Syrians are considered to be poor. The regime’s loss of large swaths of territory has moreover deprived it of enormous resources.
Many Syrian football teams have suffered corresponding losses. Five years ago, Al-Karamah of Homs and Al-Ittihad of Aleppo represented Syria in the same Asian Cup Championship in which Damascus teams are now the sole Syrian competitors. But after the destruction of their cities, they are no longer among the top teams in the local league. Once funded by top businessmen from their own cities, they now rely on GSF sponsorship, which continues to seek access to the frozen FIFA funds.
Given Syrian soccer’s strong ties with the regime’s military and security wings, gaining access to FIFA funding remains a long shot. “FIFA probably believes that the Syrian football authority won’t be able to use the money on football activities,” a Damascus-based journalist and football expert said. “With the full control of the Baath Party over the GSF, and clubs like Al-Jaish sponsored by the Defense Ministry and Al-Shorta funded by the Interior Ministry, FIFA would think twice before sending money to the Syrian Football Association.”
Syrian soccer players have but a few bad options: die under torture or from a sniper’s bullet, join an Islamist organization or the Syrian army, be a PR tool for the Assad regime, or flee the country. Syrian soccer players competing abroad largely chose the latter. The most recent player to do so was Mohammad Jaddoua, captain of Syria's Junior Football Team that qualified for the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Chile. Jaddoua illegally left Syria for Germany in April 2015 in search of a better future. His departure made him an outlaw with the Syrian Football Federation banning the team’s members from travelling abroad.
The participation of Syrian players in competitions hosted by Qatar, which the Syrian regime accuses of “sponsoring terrorist organizations in Syria”, has also been anathema for the regime since November of 2011, when Syria announced that it would not participate in the Arab Games in Qatar. Its boycott was in protest against the Arab League's decision to suspend Syrian membership. In a statement directed to international and Arab Olympic and sports committees, the Syrian Olympic Committee and the GSF said that “Syrian athletes will adhere to resistance and confronting the conspiracy against Syria,” according state-run news agency SANA.
Even if Syrian players want to join their national team, many of them face extensive problems. Some have yet to fulfill their compulsory military service, while others have expressed their sympathy with the Syrian revolution; either one is enough to get them arrested whenever they land in Syria. Such treasonous expressions have guaranteed that neither Firas Al-Khatib, the former captain of Syria’s National Soccer Team and now a striker for Kuwait’s Al-Arabi Sporting Club, nor Jehad Al Hussain, a midfielder with Al-Taawoun of the Saudi Professional League, will join the national team. Both of these players from Homs condemned the massacres committed by regime forces, especially in their own city.
However, the Baath Party ensured that 26 year-old striker Omar Al Soma, who plays for Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli and is one of the kingdom’s top scorers, would be allowed to play for the Syrian national team without repercussions despite the fact that he has yet to fulfill his military service and reports that he supported the uprising.
For players who want to represent the opposition in exile, a new soccer front has recently been established. Walid al-Muhaidi, head of the opposition [Free] Syrian National Football Team (FSNFT), said in May that players were training in a camp in Turkey. Muhaidi is a former SFA member who in October 2013 said he had defected with some 100 other athletes from Deir ez-Zor. His new team’s jerseys are green, the color of the revolution as opposed to the red of Syria’s national team.
“A message to those footballers who are carrying this flag of [the regime], the flag of blood,” one FSNFT player told the opposition radio of the Nsaeem Syria FM. “Leave such a criminal team. It is not Syria’s team, it is the team of a criminal regime.” Said another player: “I am honored to join it to prove to people that we can be up to the expectations of the rebels.”
Meanwhile, in the Syrian capital, the game goes on, even as the façade of normalcy it is meant to represent appears increasingly hollow. In April, the month Syrians celebrate their country’s independence, Israeli fighter jets struck Syrian Army weapons caches. And though huge pictures of President Bashar al-Assad were recently installed in the Damascus stadiums of Tishreen, al-Jalaa and al-Fayhaa, they loom over mostly empty seats, since for the past four football seasons spectators have rarely been allowed audience to attend football matches.
Viewers tuning in to one of the soccer league games broadcast live from Damascus and Lattakia can see that the spectacle is flagging. As the play shifts back and forth, only a handful of spectators at best look on, and the roar of the crowd has long been displaced by the sounds of bombing and gunfire intensifying just outside the frame.
History repeats itself
Soccer in Syria is a microcosm of the Syrian regime’s overall response to the protests that began in 2011. Instead of addressing the problem, the regime chose first to deny it. When that did not work, they regime used excessive force.
Similarly, although the Syrian National Team was banned from the 2014 World Cup qualifiers by FIFA for fielding an ineligible player, no one has so far been held accountable for that administrative mistake, nor has anyone apologized for it.
But overlooking or even encouraging corruption is nothing new in Syrian athletics. In the first decade of this millennium, the GSF faced several accusations of corruption, most of which were covered up by political interventions. In June 2009, the Syrian football league was rocked by allegations of match-fixing and institutional corruption that resulted in two of the country’s biggest clubs being temporarily expelled from the league.
Backed by their connections with the security forces, the two clubs took their cases to the GSF, accusing members of the SFA of being corrupt. The GSF illegally commissioned the Syrian Olympic Committee to investigate into the accusations. The committee’s investigation found the accusations leveled at the SFA by the two clubs to be true, so the GSF dissolved the SFA and gave the two clubs the green light to continue playing in the first division. FIFA in turn denounced the dissolution and called for the reinstatement of the SFA.
Throughout this scandal, just as anti-Assad protestors were described as “infiltrators”, “mercenaries” and “conspirators”, General Farouk Bouzo, then-serving president of the GSF, said the SFA had no right to take its complaints to FIFA, saying, “Those who went to FIFA have been conspiring against their country.”
On August 12, 2009, the Ba’ath Party waded into the matter by asking five of the nine SFA board members – who are Baathists – to resign.
 Omar Ibrahim is a pen name for a Syrian researcher and journalist
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