The Aisha mosque in Idlib’s al-Dana town on Sunday resonated with the words of Abdel-Basset al-Sarout, a Syrian footballer turned revolutionary song-writer and rebel, as gun-toting fighters and civilians bid farewell to their icon.
Shrouded in white, the body of al-Sarout, who died at 27, was carried out of the mosque on the shoulders of his fans. In mourning, some tried to touch his lifeless face while others held out their arms to take photographs.
Al-Sarout died of his wounds after fighting against the Syrian government army in Tel Meleh, a town in the governorate of Hama that is part of the war’s last rebel-held enclave.
Home to three million people, the final bastion of rebel forces has come under attack over the last month by the government and its ally Russia. Hundreds of people, fighters and civilians, have been killed.
Hadi Alabdallah, a prominent anti-Syrian government activist and one of al-Sarout’s closest friends, told Al Jazeera al-Sarout was wounded while trying to rescue his fellow fighters.
“That is when an artillery shell hit him,” he said. “He suffered an injury in an already wounded leg, and that eventually killed him.”
‘Singer of the revolution’
Al-Sarout had abandoned the football pitch and joined the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad back in 2011. Fame, however, remained his destiny. In the years that followed, he was known as the “singer of the revolution” for his odes to the uprising.
At his funeral, his supporters recited one of his most famous slogans, one that has become the anthem for anti-Assad Syrians.
“Jannah jannah jannah ya watanna, Ya watan ya hneien, Ya’bo gleben tayeb, Hatta narak jannah”, they chanted, which translates to “Heaven, heaven, heaven, Our homeland you’re heaven. Big-hearted homeland even your hell is heaven”.
A hero for anti-government Syrians, al-Sarout, however, was denounced as a terrorist by the football club Al Karama in his home city of Homs where he had been a goalkeeper.
On his demise, the club issued a statement saying “terrorist Sarout” had been fired from the club for fighting against his homeland and for “unjustly killing innocent people”.
In the eight-year Syrian war, few embodied the divide within the country as profoundly as the young and budding football star.
Al-Sarout spent his childhood between school and football practice, a childhood friend and teammate at Al Karamah football club told Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity.
“His father constantly admonished him for playing football,” he said. “Sarout was banned from going to the matches before he joined the club, but he would escape and go anyway. When he was a teenager, Sarout’s father insisted he worked alongside him in the construction sector but he refused and kept on playing football.
Hadi al-Abdallah, a family friend, said Sarout’s world turned upside down when the Assad government crushed the peaceful protests he helped lead in 2011. Drawing from his local popularity, al-Sarout himself then started forming a local militia.
“Sarout was among the first to defend his family’s neighbourhood, Al Bayyadah, and formed a battalion called the Al Bayyadah martyrs,” Hadi said. “Four of his brothers were fighting with him in the same battalion.”
All four of those brothers and many of al-Sarout’s friends died in the war. In 2014, he was forced to move out of Homs as government forces retook control.
The anguish of losing loved ones was exacerbated by defeat at the hands of the government and its allies. At some point, the brutality of events in Syria softened al-Sarout’s attitudes towards hardline groups, even though he never joined the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group, the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, or the latter’s successor, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
In the confusing scene of rebel groups with varying ideologies, the star rebel found himself grappling with conflicting ideas.
Early in the uprising, he appeared alongside the actress Fadwa Sulayman, a well-known Alawi dissident, to preach coexistence. But right before he evacuated from Homs, in a video message for ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra, he said, “We will fight shoulder to shoulder” against the Christians and reclaim Syria from Bashar al-Assad.
Arun Lund, a fellow with the Century Foundation, described him as at first a “simple, straightforward guy” with not much of an ideology, but also someone who reflected both the atmosphere in which he grew up and the one that surrounded him during the war.
“He came from exactly the type of background that became the foundation for Syria’s armed rebellion; a big, rural Sunni Bedouin family that had migrated in from the tribal hinterlands to a congested neighbourhood in Homs, trying to make ends meet in an economy that is stacked against them,” Lund told Al Jazeera.
“He dedicates the rest of his life to fighting a war that seems to be about his hometown, Homs, as much as it is about Syria, Assad, politics, or Islam. And obviously the uprising very quickly goes to hell, and he ends up drifting around a world shaped by extremism and warlord-ism.”
Al-Sarout’s life and choices also shone a light on the ideological divisions within the opposition.
In 2017, he was seized by HTS on a charge of pledging allegiance to ISIL. He denied the charge and instead became a commander with another faction, Jaish al-Ezza, which leaned towards and fought alongside HTS. It was while fighting for this group that he was killed.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said that al-Sarout’s participation in the rebellion was not marked by sectarian ideas at first.
“His revolutionary fervour passed through an initial period of youthful innocence and revolt in the name of dignity and freedom that was hardly marked by religion,” said Landis. “But a growing sense of despair and abandonment awakened in him a deep sense of sectarian anger, followed by a turn toward the Salafi-Jihadist ideology embraced by such groups as al-Qaeda and ISIS.”
Al-Sarout, like many other rebel fighters, groups and their supporters, called for cooperation between opposition groups against al-Assad, even if temporarily, to become a cohesive force against the government and halt its advances.
Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said al-Sarout represented the failure of the Syrian revolutionary movement to provide a vision for how to turn a widely supported protest movement into an inclusive force for a post-conflict state.
“Sarout’s own biography demonstrates this tension, where over the course of the civil war he became increasingly and credibly associated with more hardline Sunni Islamist organisations, and that alone made him less than a unifying figure for all Syrians,” he said.
Al-Sarout has left a mixed legacy among his Syrian fans. But his friends are mourning his death and, with it, what they feel is the “end of the revolution”, as one of them told Al Jazeera.
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