ANTAKYA/AMMAN — Syrian football star Abdelbasset Sarout gained a new kind of fame when the popular uprising against Bashar al Assad government erupted, chanting songs at rallies that eulogised slain protesters and vilified the president.
“What’s wrong with Bashar, killing his people to hang on to a chair? How will the wounds of this nation heal?” went one song by the 20-year-old athlete who became a symbol of what began as a non-violent protest movement.
Nearly 17 months on, Sarout has changed, mirroring how the revolt has evolved into an armed struggle seen as a desperate fight to the finish as much by Assad and his narrowing power base as by the inchoate guerrilla bands spawned by the conflict.
Sarout comes from Homs, a city where Assad’s tanks and troops have devastated districts sympathetic to opposition fighters, whose ranks the soft-spoken goalkeeper has now joined.
He is just one of tens of thousands of Syrians from all walks of life to take up arms after it became clear that violence, along with paper reforms dictated from above, was the ruling system’s blunt response to peaceful demands for change.
“The brigades across Syria are the same people who went out demonstrating peacefully at the start of the revolution, have been shot at and were forced to switch from carrying banners to carrying weapons,” said Ahmad Zeidan, a opposition activist working on streamlining the anti-government insurgency.
Many fighters come from obscure towns like Atma, Mayadeen, Busra Al Harir and Taftanaz in Syria’s countryside which had long seen their sons conscripted into an army.
In July, video footage showed the footballer carrying a rocket launcher and marching with opposition fighters in the Khalidiya neighbourhood of Homs, pummelled by army shelling for months.
“We are finished with the peaceful era,” the slim sportsman with a light moustache shouts in barely controlled anger.
“Khalidiya is liberated territory because we are not former army officers and we didn’t go to Turkey, leaving others to fight. Look around, there is no Riad al Asaad, no renegade officers. Those sitting abroad are not worth a halfpenny.” — Reuters