Sport and war: Syria: On the way back to world sport

Basketball was also played in Syria during the war. International teams are now coming to the country again to compete in the qualifying tournament for the Olympics.

Photo: dpa/ Mohammed Badra

The Al Fayhaa sports complex in Damascus covers 25 hectares. With a stadium, halls and training grounds, the area also has a political function for the Syrian state. This will become clear from next Saturday. Then one of the early qualifying tournaments for the Olympic basketball competition takes place in the Al Fayhaa Arena. Eight teams from Asia will play in two groups, with the winner hoping to take part in Paris 2024. With sporting events like these, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wants to smooth his way back into the international community. According to the motto: Look, it’s safe again with us.

But sport is only a means to an end, says Robert Chatterjee from the Middle East magazine “Zenith”: “The Syrian regime hopes that more visitors will come to the country and bring in foreign currency.” He thinks it’s quite possible that Syrian sports associations strive to hold further competitions, also for youngsters.

The war in Syria has claimed more than 400,000 lives. Twenty million people depend on humanitarian aid. Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against the population. Despite this, Syria has not been excluded from international sports federations, like Russia was after the war of aggression against Ukraine.

Al-Assad now controls two-thirds of Syrian territory again, but the conflicts have not been resolved, they have only been frozen. In the northeast, for example, there is a semi-autonomous Kurdish state known as Rojava. “However, as the host of international sporting events, the Syrian regime would like to express its claim to the entire territory,” says Robert Chatterjee.

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Just recently, Bashar al-Assad received officials from the new soccer champion Al-Fotuwa in his palace. The club comes from the eastern Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor, which had long been occupied by the so-called “Islamic State”. Al-Fotuwa had to play his home games in exile in Damascus because traveling overland would have been too dangerous for opposing teams. Al-Assad now celebrated the winning team as a symbol of the “steadfastness of the Syrian people”.

Last May, Syria was reinstated into the Arab League after a twelve-year absence. The USA and the European Union criticized this step and reject a normalization of relations. The Federal Foreign Office strongly advises German citizens against traveling to Damascus. In the recent past, too, basketball games in Syria had to be postponed at short notice due to bombings. Nevertheless, the world basketball association Fiba awarded one of its pre-qualification tournaments to Syria. In response to written inquiries from »nd«, also about security, Fiba replied in a rather general manner: »The Syrian Basketball Association has already organized successful qualifying tournaments for the 2023 World Cup in Asia. And we believe that the execution of this tournament will be of the same quality.«

Basketball is the second most important sport in Syria. In the most important one, football, the national team and clubs are still not allowed to play international home games. Will that change soon? “In September 2022, a FIFA delegation traveled to Syria and promised support,” reports football expert Nadim Rai, who grew up in Syria. “In May of this year, the President of the Asian Football Association visited Damascus.”

Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, who is from Bahrain, also met Bashar al-Assad there. Shortly thereafter, al-Assad traveled to Saudi Arabia, where Syria was reinstated in the Arab League. The Gulf States play an important role in Syria’s rehabilitation, Middle East researcher Robert Chatterjee analyses: »Not every sporting event can now take place in Saudi Arabia or Qatar. The Gulf States want to involve countries like Syria so that there can be more stability in the region again.«

On the one hand the Gulf States, on the other hand the important partner Russia. Syria and Russia have announced closer cooperation in talent promotion, training theory and sports science. For example, war veterans from both countries held joint competitions. In his speeches, Bashar al-Assad repeatedly draws a connection between sport, the state and the military, explains Nadim Rai and cites an example: “The weightlifter Man Asaad dedicated his Olympic bronze medal from Tokyo to the Syrian president and the military.” Man Asaad too was received in the government palace.

In Syria, sport supports political networks. Athletes who once professed opposition are silent, dead or in exile. Around 80 percent of the Syrian population are affected by poverty. Most people, says Nadim Rai, will not be able to afford a ticket to the basketball tournament in Damascus. Recreational sports are also hard to think of. Many sports facilities have been destroyed – and there is hardly any money for reconstruction.

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