Assad’s team, Syria’s supporters

Al-Jumhuriya’s Arabic editor ponders the political and emotional dilemmas of supporting Syria’s—or is it Assad’s?—soccer team.

[Editor’s note: This article was first published in Arabic on Tuesday, 10 October, 2017.]

When I tried to follow the issue, it wasn’t clear to me where the expression ‘separating sport from politics’ began to be used in the discussion around what position to take regarding the Syrian Arab Republic’s soccer team. The expression in any case has little meaning in the Syrian context, for what is the ‘politics’ that can or cannot be separated from sport? What kind of politics are we talking about?

Most likely, what’s meant by this expression is the following: it’s inappropriate for us to take the political dispute about how to manage power and wealth in our country into consideration where its team is concerned; instead we should separate the two issues, and support the team no matter what political faction is currently in power, because it represents the country as a whole, not just that faction.

This kind of talk is utterly delusional in the Syrian context today, since there is anyway no politics in Syria for us to debate whether or not to separate it from sport. Politics is the management of conflict between political and social forces without the use of violence—indeed for the express purpose of avoiding violence—yet in Syria today there is nothing except violence. There isn’t a political conflict between sides with multiple visions for Syria, but rather a continuous armed conflict, which means the rejection of politics by definition.  

And the Syrian soccer team today is a team formed by one of those warring forces, and it submits with full allegiance to that force—raising its symbols and photos of its leader—and its players and training staff are selected by that force, which exploits the team’s presence in any sporting occasion to its own advantage.

That force is, of course, the regime, whose rule remains legitimate from the perspective of the state institutions, but which legitimacy is subject to questioning and doubt, and the presence of this team contributes to restoring and reinforcing it.

To begin with, before the outbreak of the popular revolution and then its transformation into an armed conflict, there was political supremacy for a ruling group endeavoring to use tools of violence to reject politics, and squeeze it into dead corners. And this group did not permit the ‘separation of sport from politics,’ but rather endeavored to link every sporting achievement or presence to itself, and to the personality of its sole leader and chieftain, who practiced the politics of distributing benefits and privileges, and purchasing allegiances, along with a tremendous amount of violence, material and symbolic, in contravention of all politics.

So much for analysis. Emotions are another matter, in that alongside the question of separating sport from politics, the same discussion was being held in another way: should we be happy, or should we not be happy, if the team of the Syrian Arab Republic wins? And this question in turn has little meaning in the Syrian context, or in any other context, because the question of ‘should?’ cannot be applied to matters relating to emotions.

For myself, the question was extremely perplexing, because I realize the team is the team of the Assad regime, and that its victory would work in favor of the idea of Assad remaining in power, and for this reason I didn’t cheer when I heard the team could reach the World Cup finals, but rather felt grief just imagining the endorsement for the regime that would come with the team’s qualification for the Moscow mondial. I wanted them to lose for that reason, and yet when I watched the last quarter of the match with Australia, I was struck by a few seconds of delight when Omar al-Somah scored the equalizer. Perhaps this delight came from the faraway depths of memory, in which there was always a dream of seeing the Syrian team at the World Cup.

A few days before that, I was in the Aksaray neighborhood of Istanbul, and I was so disconnected I didn’t even know the team was playing at the time against Iran. I heard rhythmic chanting tied in my memory to the Syrian demonstrations against the regime, then I saw a crowd of dozens cheering the name of Omar al-Somah; cheering for the Syrian team, and cheering also: “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one.” I wished for this to be true—that is, that we had a country like all other of God’s creations, and that this country of ours had a team that represented it, for which we could be happy when it won and sad when it lost. That is, a country that has politics, and has sport separated from those politics.

But what about those young men in Aksaray? What about the young men in East Ghouta, annihilated by the regime’s war machine, who raise a banner saluting the team with the flag of the Syrian revolution on it? What about the young men in a video from Western Aleppo Province, jumping in delight at Omar al-Somah’s goal? There’s no doubt that they want a country with sport separated from politics; no doubt that they all have emotions they express in their own ways; and no doubt that no one has the right to censor those emotions of theirs.

To describe those people as regime shabbiha [thugs] would not cohere with any aspiration to build a country that has politics, for they aren’t cheering for Bashar al-Assad’s team, but rather for what they regard as Syria’s team. And even if, in this conduct of theirs, there’s an expression of nostalgia for the way things were before 2011, they are the last people to be reproached for that nostalgia. Blame has to be portioned out to many others before they receive their share of it: to the supporters of the Assad regime itself; to the regional and major states; to the armed factions and the political opposition; and to the international community that continues to regard the barbaric armed force headed by Bashar al-Assad to be the legitimate Syrian government.

It’s that international legitimacy specifically that makes a team formed under the supervision of mukhabarat [intelligence] agencies a representative for the whole country at sporting events, and that also permits the regime to extort Syrians over the matter of passports, and permits it to humiliate Syrians at the doors of consulates. Over and above the humiliation, a luckless Syrian might pay $800 for a passport valid for only a year and a half, in an operation of never-ending theft of Syrians’ monies, and their lives, even outside the country. And while it may seem an odd comparison, going to the Syrian regime’s consulate despite all this degradation to obtain a recognized passport corresponds in a way to supporting the soccer team, for both involve surrender to the idea that this is our ‘legitimate’ government, whether we like it or not.

In his latest speech, Bashar al-Assad said, “The achievements of the Syrian Arab Army are war, and they are politics also.” The meaning of this is exactly that there is no politics in a country governed by him. As for the separation of sport from politics as the regime understands it, it’s revealed clearly in the story of the current soccer team, in that Omar al-Somah’s return to it, with all the mandatory salutes to the head of the regime and his brother and the Syrian Arab Army that accompanied it, permitted him to secure the release of a detainee, which all the rounds of political negotiations had failed to do.

That is politics as the Assad regime knows it: a few privileges, having nothing to do with any law, in exchange for absolute allegiance.

The general Syrian discussion about supporting the team was governed by unease and skepticism, as well as mutual accusations and mixed and contradictory emotions, incorporating broad sectors of Syrians, but not supporters of the regime, who remain fully confident in what they do and say. They don’t chant that the Syrian people are one, because the Syrian people for them are only the supporters of Assad and those submitting to his rule without any form of resistance. Syria to them is Assad’s Syria, and nothing else, and this soccer team naturally represents Syria, without debate.

As for the regime opponents who support the team, perhaps they still dream of Syria, or are just lovers of soccer, supporting the team that represents a country other than which they have none. And if they don’t know, or pretend not to know, that the victories of this team are victories for the ruling junta that devastated their lives, perhaps that’s because they feel there’s no longer anything that can increase the damage to their cause. Should they be blamed for feeling that, after the world in its entirety has come to be a participant in the devastation of their lives?