A football star-turned-protest leader-turned-jihadist encourages peaceful anti-Bashar Al-Assad protests in Syrian rebel-held territory. Nearby, in “Islamic State” (IS)-controlled territory, young boys play football with decapitated heads.
The contrast is rife with symbolism. It potentially offers alternative ways of understanding the parameters within which at least some Syrians who joined jihadist groups operate. It also provides some insight for peace negotiators expected to gather next week in Switzerland into what Syrians may want their post-war country to look like. Finally, it juxtaposes aspirations of those who saw jihadist groups as their only option with the brutal policy of IS.
In a rare video timed for release during anti-Al-Assad protests in areas in which a US-Russian sponsored ceasefire largely took hold, Abdul Baset al-Saroot, a goalkeeper for the Syrian national football team until 2011 when he became an anti-government protest leader in Homs, insisted that the rebellion would continue until Al-Assad is toppled.
The video is significant because Al-Saroot, known not only for his football skills but also as a folk singer, turned jihadist after surviving attempts on his life and losing close relatives in government attempts to kill him. Al-Saroot reportedly initially joined the Al-Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda-affiliate in Syria, and later switched to IS.
Disgusted with IS’s practices, he was reported to have left the group several months ago to return to Homs, where the video was shot. Despite having broken with two jihadist groups, Al-Saroot appears to maintain his Islamist stance, while also presenting a position that a broad segment of Syrians can buy into.
“The revolution continues. I swear this revolution will continue. I swear that even Russia, Iran, China and all allies of Bashar Al-Assad and this criminal regime, even if all the world powers joined forces against us, this revolution will continue as will the Syrian people. This is a divine revolution. It had a divine beginning and it will have a divine ending. And we will never backtrack from our goal, which is toppling this regime. I swear, we will not give up,” Al-Saroot said, lacing his political goal that harks back to the 2011 peaceful protests with a religious coating.
Al-Saroot then turned to one of his more popular songs to revive the spirit of the anti-Al-Assad revolt.
“Paradise, paradise, paradise, our homeland is,
Oh homeland, my love, home of the beloved soil,
Even your fire is paradise, even your fire is paradise!
Our martyr, no, he didn’t die; the girls cheer for him,
Our martyr, no, he didn’t die; the girls cheer for him,
Surrounded by servants and beautiful women,
God willing in paradise, God willing in paradise,
Paradise, paradise, paradise, our homeland is,
We will continue this revolution until the very end,
And we will not forget our oath, we will not forget our oath,
We will never give up; we will never give up the blood of our martyrs.”
Despite the religious framing of his words, Al-Saroot did not appear to be expounding the jihadist goal of a pan-Islamist state, the embodiment of IS’s declaration of a caliphate. His call for continuation of what he termed a revolution came as the Al-Nusra Front resisted the raising of the flag of the 2011 peaceful revolt during mass anti-government protests in rebel-held areas, in which protesters chanted, “The revolution continues” and “Long live Syria, down with Assad”. In some cases, Nusra went as far as trying to prevent the protests.
Al-Saroot’s Islamist framing, coupled with his walking away from the major jihadist forces in Syria, points to the fickle support that groups like the Al-Nusra Front and IS appear to enjoy. It is a support that speaks less of ideological commitment and more of a lack of options. So does the eruption of peaceful anti-Al-Assad protests the moment the ceasefire took hold. Al-Saroot’s insistence on the 2011 framing of the rebellion against Al-Assad as a revolution was in line with the non-sectarian, political demands of the protesters.
“I am overjoyed. … We are protesting today just like we did back in 2011, but without bullets, and the security forces are not here to repress us. … We came to confirm that our revolution is ongoing, no matter what happens. We are a resilient and determined people, and we will not back down from our demands: a free Syria for all Syrians and free of Assad and terrorism. Thousands of martyrs have fallen, which makes us more determined not to back off on our rightful and legitimate demands,” Shamel el-Ahmad, one of the protest organisers, told Al-Monitor.
No doubt, one reason Al-Saroot walked away from IS was because the group is seeking to mould the next generation of people who fall under its administration in the tradition of its extreme brutality. A report titled Children of the Islamic State, released in early March by the Quilliam Foundation, quoted the United Nations on how IS was encouraging young boys to play football with decapitated human heads to make brutal executions appear normal.
Football plays a role in IS recruitment in areas it controls even before children arrive at training camps. IS videos and photos show fighters playing football with boys in village and town squares and handing out footballs. IS has also used football in some of its recruitment videos.
“ISIL [another acronym for IS] reportedly established at least three child training camps in Raqqa, and hundreds of boys as young as 10 years of age were imprisoned in Aleppo, forced to attend indoctrination seminars and promised salaries, mobile phones, weapons, a martyr’s place in paradise and the ‘gift’ of a wife upon joining ISIL… Children were also recruited as suicide bombers and used to perpetrate extreme violence,” the office of the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict said in a report.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.