By James M. Dorsey
Soccer, never distant from Middle Eastern politics, weaves its own thread through the brutal battle for the future of Syria, wracked by the Arab world’s most protracted and most bloody revolt against autocratic rule to date.
If Syrian nation youth team goalkeeper Abdelbasset Saroot symbolized for much of the past 17 months the resilience of peaceful protest in the besieged and battered city of Homs, soccer similarly goes to the heart of the shabiha, the irregular, civilian-clad, armed groups blamed for many of the atrocities believed to have been committed by forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
In a fascinating account of the history of the shabiha, whose designation derives from the Arabic word for ghost, Syrian Comment, traces the origins of these criminals to members of the Assad family as well as young, desolate Alawites in northern Syria who saw their escape from poverty and humiliation in becoming wealthy and prestigious on the back of smuggling of banned luxury goods from Lebanon and involvement in soccer.
Witnesses as well as opposition and human rights groups hold the shabiha responsible for a host of atrocities over the past 17 months, including the killing of 21 peaceful protesters in Latakia in March 2011, another 21, a month later in Homs and scores of demonstrators in May 2011 in Banias, Jableh, and Latakia. Shabiha are further accused of conducting a scorched earth campaign in northwestern Syria, burning crops, ransacking houses, shooting protesters and according to The Washington Post raping women. Shabiha are also believed to have committed the massacre in May of this year in Houla, a region north of Homs in which 108 people, including 49 children, were killed and in June in Al Qubair in which 78 people, many of them women and children died.
While the term shabiha has come to mean thugs rather than ghosts in Syria, the associated verb, shabaha, describes a goalkeeper, a shabih, jumping into the air or going airborne to stop an opponent’s attack, according to Syrian Comment. The shabih jumps and saves whether he was the soccer goalkeeper or the smuggler who enabled his clients to jump in status with the goods he provided.
Fawwaz al-Assad, a cousin of Bashar’s, who is widely viewed as the original shabih who rose to control the lucrative port of Latakia and its adjacent smuggling route, started as a fervent supporter of the city’s Tishreen soccer team before becoming its president. Syrian Comment recalls Fawwaz driving in “his big Mercedes” a demonstrative loop around the Al-Assad stadium before sitting on a chair in a fenced off area track reserved for players and coaches to watch a match.
“Always Fawwaz would have few words with the referee before the game also. In one very famous incident Fawwaz took his gun out and let out some shots. The game was between Hutteen and Tishreen and a forward scored on an offside goal for Fawwaz’ team Tishreen. The referee in that famous incident changed his mind after the gun shot to claim the goal in favor of Fawwaz’ team. That made Fawwaz happier and he let out more shots. Fawwaz was a real bully and acted like one,” Syrian Comment reported.
Fawwaz is largely credited in given the word shabih in Syria the meaning of thug rather than ghost. The European Union put Fawwaz and his brother Munzir, who ranks with Fawwaz among the original shabiha but remained on the background, on its sanctions list in May for alleged involvement in "the repression against the civilian population as members of the shabiha".
If Fawwaz inspires fear and disgust, Abdelbassat represents inspiration and resilience. A celebrated national soccer team goalkeeper, singer of revolutionary folk songs and cheerleader of the uprising in Homs, Abdelbassat has set a model that has been followed by other soccer players and athletes. Soccer national team goalkeeper Mosab Balhous is believed to be dead after his arrest a year ago on charges of harboring a ‘terrorist gang’ and ‘taking money to instigate unrest’. Silver medal winner in the 2004 Athens Olympics Nasser al-Shami is reportedly recovering from wounds he suffered when a sniper fired at him in Hama.
Lulu Shanku, a Syrian national team player returned to his Swedish premier league team Syrianska disgusted with the corruption in Syrian soccer and the intimidation of players by the Assad regime. In some ways, he may have jumped from the fire into the frying pan. Power within the Swedish team is believed to rest with Ghayath Moro, an Assyrian who left Syria in the 1970s and a former Syrianska board member, who now serves as its unelected head of security. Former club board members and officials say that Mr. Moro, a mechanic and failed gas station owner, had close ties to members of Soderatalje’s criminal underground including Bülent Özcan Melke Aslanoglu, the fugitive brother of the club’s coach Özcan Melkemichel.
Aslanoglu disappeared after the killing in a struggle for underground power of Lebanese-Assyrian Syrianska rival Assyriska goalkeeper Eddie Moussa, widely seen as an act of revenge for the criminal dealings of his brother, Danny. “How much of Syrianska’s rise was funded by crime money is the million dollar question. That was probably more the case until the team became more successful,” said Eric Niva, one of Sweden’s top investigative sports reporters.
Replying to a question posed to Mr. Shanku in an interview in May about the fate of Mosab Balhous, Mr. Moro charged that “Mossab disappeared because of one of the gangsters against the regime.” Using terminology employed by the regime, the Syrianska official denounced Syrian protesters and rebels as “gangsters” and accused the United States, Israel and Al Qaeda of waging war against Mr. Assad. “It has been a year and three months now. It is clear that the people want Assad,” Mr. Moro said. He asserted that Syrian forces had captured 12 French and some 25 Turkish generals who had been supporting the rebellion, but could produce no evidence or reporting to back up his claim.
Pakistani The News reporter Naveed Ahmad quoted in late July acclaimed Syrian athlete Yasser Nasrullah as saying in the besieged city of Aleppo where he joined the rebel Free Syrian Army and shouldered a rocket-propelled grenade: “Over the last one year, the only popular sport for the youth has been raising slogans against Bashar Al-Assad and his allies while the regime played game of bloodshed. “I always dreamed of gold, silver and bronze medals but now I score Russian-made tanks and artillery,” he said, claiming to have already knocked out more than 20 Syrian tanks.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer