The keeper who went to war

Abdul Baset al- Sarout played for Syria U20s – then life changed

- Words Nick Moore

The goalkeeper is hoisted high above the huge, wild crowd in front of the Clock Tower in Homs, Syria. He’s propped up by a mass of humanity, as if he’s a crowd surfer at a heavy metal gig. There’s a volume to match. Thousands of frenzied men jump up and down, lock arms and spin in circles as their hero is passed through to a raised platform. But this is not the end to some dramatic football tournament – it’s a furious political protest.

Warned that his life is in danger – that assassins of the regime he detests, the dictatorsh­ip of Bashar al- Assad, may be gunning for him – the goalkeeper points to his head.

“Listen, oh sniper: here’s the neck and here’s the head,” he goads. The crowd erupts. What follows is extraordin­ary. Like a football terrace, the gathering fervently parrots his chants.

“The army’s hearts are dead! Who is killing us? The army and our supposed brothers!” “Bashar kills his own people to stay in power – shame on him!”

“It’s your choice, soldier: to heal or kill!” “Homs the audacious! Leave, leave, leave!”

After the performanc­e, the goalkeeper is bundled into a car and the crowd claws at this hybrid of rock star and rebel; Diego Maradona, Mick Jagger and Che Guevara, all at once. The car speeds away and the children of Homs run after it, singing, “Baset, we love you!”

The goalkeeper is on top of the world. It’s early 2011, and the Syrian rebellion is young.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, a series of pro- democracy uprisings and protests across the area, hope has returned to an oppressed people. Assad’s violent regime has terrorised Syria since 2000, and his father’s before him since 1971.

The goalkeeper is 19- year- old Abdul Baset al- Sarout, a promising former internatio­nal with Syria’s youth teams. He’s also known as ‘ The Nightingal­e of the Revolution’, leading the uprising in Homs.

However, in fighting his cause, and for his country, the well of optimism will soon run dry. It will be replaced by horror. Baset’s story will traverse heroism, war crimes, a siege, the death of his family, Islamic extremism and desperatio­n as the net tightens around him. Football will offer him a way out, and he will refuse it. Football, as with almost everything else good in Syria, will be destroyed.

As Kim Ghattas writes in her devastatin­g analysis of the region, Black Wave, the Syrian revolution will not follow the path of more fortunate Arab Spring nations. Instead: “There would be rivers of blood, millions of refugees. The war in Syria would break the Middle East. It would break the world.”

Elements of the British press may still rage about people in dinghies trying to make it to Dover. Few wonder why they’re doing it. The goalkeeper’s story is Syria’s story – and few emerge from it well.


It wasn’t meant to be like this. Born and raised in Homs, Baset was the most gifted young goalkeeper to have emerged from his country in years. In a regional media poll, he was voted the second- best custodian in the whole of Asia, despite his teenage years.

“He was so talented,” says Syrian journalist Orwa Kanawati, talking to Fourfourtw­o from Turkey where he is now based after fleeing Aleppo. “He played for Karama FC in Homs, and graduated with the player who is now the No. 1 for Syria [ Ibrahim Alma]. He would have played for Syria for many years.

“Baset was a flamboyant, acrobatic keeper. He liked to do tricks – many people likened him to the Colombian, Rene Higuita. But he was also strong, brave and a good athlete.”

Before the rebellion of 2011, football in Syria was wildly popular but “third world”, according to Kanawati. “We don’t have many football accomplish­ments,” he explains. “We’ve never qualified for the World Cup, although we did have a referee [ Jamal Al Sharif] there! We didn’t beat big countries.”

Sport suffered under the current leadership. It had been hoped by the west that when Hafez al- Assad died in 2000, his son might be a reformer. The opposite was the case: under Bashar’s rule, the nation became even more insular. “Before 2000, it was common for the Syrian league to bring in profession­als from outside Syria,” adds Kanawati. “After then it wasn’t allowed, and Syrian clubs had to belong to the government.”

The Arab Spring would fire this low- level suppressio­n into the stratosphe­re. Uprisings, beginning in Tunisia but then spreading to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, sent panic through the region’s dictators – both Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak were deposed. As Ghattas writes, in Syria, “Private yearning for freedom from a brutal dictator became a tsunami of people on the streets, openly resisting him [ Assad]. Syrians had discovered their own power as they broke out of the internal prison that had confined them throughout decades.”

Crowds chanted, “There is no president for eternity – down with Assad!” Baset was one of many roused, but many other key figures didn’t join in. Some were pro- regime, and there was also a religious divide ( it’s a slight generalisa­tion, but many rebels were Sunni Muslims while many loyalists were Shias).

Others were frightened. “They tried to get famous people to be anti- revolution, and they monitored anyone pro- revolution,” says Kanawati. “The Assad regime wanted to use athletes to suppress demonstrat­ions and convince people that this was all a foreign plot to topple their reign. When some, like Baset, rejected the killing of their people, the regime targeted them. So, Baset joining the revolution was a big deal.”


As dissent grew, football was suspended. “The regime were concerned that stadiums would be a focal point for protest,” continues Kanawati. “The matches would be streamed to an internatio­nal audience and they didn’t want anyone to see any unrest.”

The ultras would instead be found chanting on the streets, in places such as Homs. At first, it was peaceful – but Assad responded with force. Stone- throwing was promptly met with bullets and grenades. Tanks were sent in, rebels rounded up. Baset was briefly courted by the regime, who recognised his sway. In the remarkable documentar­y about him, Return To Homs, he tells the story while picking through the rubble of his destroyed former home, where his brother has recently been killed by an army offensive.

“A few months ago, I could have returned to my normal life,” he says. “They asked me to meet Bashar, then speak on TV. ‘ You’ll be a star player,’ they said. They were furious when I refused.” Surveying the mess, Baset begins to realise that peaceful resistance is futile. “We are dealing with people who don’t fear God,” he insists. “We would never win if we stayed peaceful. I don’t need them to be a star player.”


As protests turned to riots, demonstrat­ors picked up arms. From May 2011, Homs was under siege. Meanwhile, a military wing of the rebellion – the Free Syrian Army – was establishe­d, with the aim of gaining enough territory to set up an opposition government. For a while, it appeared to be succeeding: throughout 2011 and 2012, Assad lost his strangleho­ld on much of the country. Even the US felt his days were numbered. “But they had underestim­ated the dictator with no conscience,” writes Ghattas. “His approach was ‘ Assad, or we burn the country’. And he would do just that.”

Internatio­nal geopolitic­s also came into play. Syria, like much of the Middle East, was just a pawn; of strategic importance to Iran, which sees the country as an extension of its Shia- dominated territory ( Assad himself is part of the Shia Alawite sect). On the other side, the Sunni world, led by Saudi Arabia, wanted to limit Iranian influence ( which, as ever, usually boiled down to oil and power).

While Barack Obama disapprove­d of Assad, he was wary of another hellish conflict in the area. The US, always ready to prompt ‘ regime change’ whenever it suited them, calculated that although Assad was deplorable, a war in Syria would prove too costly. The west had used Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapon potential as a reason to destroy him – but when Assad actually used chemical weapons on his own civilians, the west didn’t react.

“We were so disappoint­ed with the west,” says Kanawati. “Yes, they accepted refugees and provided some aid, but they didn’t take a strong position against the regime. There was evidence of crimes against humanity; evidence to get rid of this criminal. But they decided not to. When a regime kills your wife, your sister, your child, you don’t hire a lawyer. You have to fight.”

Baset’s hand was forced, after four of his brothers were killed in battle around Homs. His days as a keeper were over. “We came out with olive branches and bare chests,” he said. “But when the whole world lets you down, when you show demonstrat­ions with no sectariani­sm and you’re fought, then you have no choice. People want to live in peace and dignity. Maybe older generation­s already knew the regime better. Ours didn’t.”

He was soon shooting at the army street to street, firing behind bombed- out buildings and grabbing fitful sleep inside safe houses or amid the rubble. In Return To Homs, we see him examining TV coverage of government torture rooms, while there’s also unflinchin­g footage of a ‘ child martyr’, gunned down by the administra­tion.

All the time, Baset sings: in the square, on Youtube and in rebel- controlled areas, where Syrians would gather around TVS to watch. It wasn’t long before he become Public Enemy No. 1 for Assad, with a $ 35,000 bounty put on his head. When Ibrahim Qashoush, a fellow revolution­ary singer, was detained, Assad’s men reportedly slit his throat.

Kanawati offered Baset a place on the Free Syrian Football Team in Turkey, but he turned it down, deciding to fight until the end. The rebellion hung in the balance. Unfortunat­ely, two of the most sinister Islamist groups on the planet were by now exerting influence on the conflict – on rival sides – and making an awful situation even worse.


Through 2012, proxy elements of Sunni- Shia and Saudi- Iranian hostility moved in, adding a new dimension to the conflict. On Assad’s side arrived the Islamic Revolution­ary Guard Corps as well as Hezbollah: the much- feared, Iran- funded, Lebanon- based militia classed as a terrorist group by the European Union. This was a major fighting force, superior to the Syrian army. Ultimately, the IRGC wanted an empire loyal to Iran. Much of the Middle East was outraged by their daring.

On the other side were Sunni jihadis. Led by Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi, an Iraqi, they were followers of Wahhabism ( the extreme beliefs followed by Osama Bin Laden) and wanted to create their own borderless Islamic State. Syria’s chaos meant plenty of willing recruits.

Both camps scored victories. Supported by Baghdadi’s men, the city of Raqqa fell into Free Syrian Army hands in March 2013. There was rejoicing, and statues of Assad were pulled to the floor, but some dangerous deals had been done. Extremism was overlooked by those seeing Baghdadi as a liberator. The Islamists overpowere­d the FSA leadership and imposed their beliefs on the city, berating women who didn’t veil and forming a Sharia court. By April 2013, black flags flew over Raqqa, and Baghdadi officially announced a new organisati­on: the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. ISIS was born.

Baset faced more tough choices. In 2013, Assad gassed civilians in Ghouta. There was internatio­nal uproar, but rather than oust the Syrian leader, the US made a deal with Assad in which he essentiall­y promised not to do it again. “The message seemed to be: he could kill his people with any weapon he wanted, except chemical weapons,” writes Ghattas. “It was an inflexion point. Assad had broken internatio­nal law with no consequenc­es. Left to die by the world, sensing Assad would feel emboldened, thousands more Syrians fled.”

Jihad groups swelled – “Even men who’d never been religious and preferred a drink to a prayer,” reveals Ghattas. “In their despair, there was nothing left to hold on to but guns and religion. The FSA was now disintegra­ting. There were no good options for good men, so Al- Sarout joined an Islamist rebel group. He grew a beard. He stopped singing.”


The goalkeeper had suffered a lot. After setting up the ‘ Martyrs of Bayada Brigade’, he had been involved in several successful battles but sustained serious injuries. Also, his men faced starvation. “During the siege, we were reduced to eating soup consisting of water and grass,” he said. Having lost faith in the weak FSA, he pondered allying with ISIS. Rumours swirled that he had given allegiance.

“There’s no smoke without fire,” he would confess. “It does have a basis. I’d become frustrated by seven months of no progress, trying to break the siege. They asked, ‘ When ISIS reaches this area, will you be prepared to give allegiance?’ I was willing.”

It was later reported that Baset did pledge, saying that ISIS were, “Muslims, just as we are... all of us are one hand, to fight and take back the lands defiled by the regime.”

Others say it never happened, and Baset became horrified by the group. Either way, ISIS eventually declared him an “ally of the USA” for not joining, and demanded his weapon. But Baset fronted up to what was by now the most notorious group on Earth.

“I replied, ‘ If there is someone among you more macho than Abdul Baset, let them come forward to take my weapon’,” he said. He then released a video condemning ISIS, and continued life on the run. The conflict dragged on for years – and Baset fought on. But Hezbollah troops poured in and allowed Assad to recapture huge territorie­s.

A key battle in Al- Qusayr tipped the balance back to the regime. In Homs, the rebels were pummelled into a small quarter. Time ran out for Baset on June 7, 2019. The goalkeeper was shot during a firefight in Hama, and died the next day. He was 27. In the tiny village of Dana, hundreds attended his funeral.


Baset’s legacy is complex. Some condemned him as an extremist; for others, though, he remains a hero. “His voice lit the holy path for us,” tweeted prominent opposition activist, Lina Shamy. “He warned us [ not] to let down our Syria in his life and in his death.”

For all, he is a lesson of what can happen in revolution­s. Aron Lund, an expert at the Century Foundation think tank, says Baset’s life was “a microcosm of the Syrian war, and of the way it’s also been a war over how to reimagine a very murky and fluid reality as something clear- cut and political.”

The sadness is that Baset could never have become famous just for his acrobatic saves. Sport in Syria continues to be as torn apart as the country: when the final round of World

Cup qualifying starts in September – with the national team pitted in the same group as Iran, Iraq and Lebanon – they’ll have to play their ‘ home’ games in Jordan, while the domestic league now consists only of sides based in government areas.

Kanawati explains: “No player or coach or person can contact the other regions. Only the pro- regime players can play.” Kanawati helped to establish the Free Syrian team in Turkey, while other attempts at setting up an alternativ­e side have been made among refugees in Germany. He also assists with the running of a league in a Turkish- controlled portion of Syria and commentate­s on games, broadcast via social media.

Kanawati wants one thing to come out of his interview. “We’d like to have our country back, but that feels impossible,” he tells FFT.

“If we’re ever going to achieve something, we need internatio­nal recognitio­n. That hasn’t happened, and until Assad is gone it doesn’t look likely. But I want people to know that we aren’t monsters. Pro- Assad westerners want to paint us as terrorists – we’re just people, seeking freedom from a regime.”

In life, that was enough for Abdul Baset al- Sarout the goalkeeper to feel like his future death might be worthwhile. “This nation will never submit again,” he said. “This matter has been decided. We’re already victorious.”

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 ??  ?? Above Hated in some quarters, but a visionary martyr to many
Above Hated in some quarters, but a visionary martyr to many
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right Baset did not remain in football for long
Below A scene from a special forces course given his name
Above and right Baset did not remain in football for long Below A scene from a special forces course given his name
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 ??  ?? Top Gone but not forgotten
Above On that truck: the body of one Abdul Baset al- Sarout
Top Gone but not forgotten Above On that truck: the body of one Abdul Baset al- Sarout

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