Where is Abdel Basset Sarout?
The silence of Basset stirs many rumors.
He was a star in Syria as the national soccer team’s goalkeeper, and were he to have fled Syria like four million others since 2011, peace and good fortune would characterize his life. He might have been in the World Cup by joining a different nation’s team, becoming a citizen where they needed a better goalie. But instead, at 19 years old, he joined the activists in the uprising against Assad. He stayed in the Syrian city of Homs. He became an icon of their revolution, more than four years ago now, when Syria joined the Arab Spring and descended into civil war.
Talal Derki’s film, Return to Homs (2013) exposed Abdel Basset Sarout’s role in the armed resistance with footage taken from Homs, following Basset. Its reach didn’t go much further than the film festival circuit, where it has been internationally received and positively reviewed. The documentary became available on Netflix and now Basset’s story is being exposed on a massive scale. The film ends on a cliffhanger in 2013, with Basset on a truck heading for Homs. Very little is known of his whereabouts since that film. That is why I decided to follow up my review, Goalkeeper of the Syrian Civil War (2014), with the most updated information I could find concerning his whereabouts and activities.
No, he is not dead. No, he has not joined The Islamic State. Here is how I know.
Abdel Basset Sarout has been rumored to have joined The Islamic State (ISIS). Other rumors fly around that he is dead. His official Facebook page hasn’t been updated since December 31st, 2014. The image of him with the Syrian soccer team remains, with that fierce and ruthless look on his face, one that suggests he could become a jihadist.
But jihad is not really what Basset is up to. Syrians are religious people. In the process of gaining arms and funds, he has appeased to Islamist funders. It is important to judge someone’s radicalism on their own scale. In Syria, he is not seen as an Islamist militant. He is seen as a Syrian militiant, a revolutionary. He is characterized by Assad and the state-controlled television as a terrorist, but his values are more western. Tolerance and democracy is what Basset continues to fight for. No, he is not dead. No, he has not joined The Islamic State. Here is how I know.
I found several Syrian refugees and activists, including Return to Homs collaborator, Orwa Nyrabia, to learn more about Basset’s character and whereabouts. Nyrabia and Derki have lost contact with Basset. But activist and refugee, Aboud Dandachi, confirmed that the former athlete now bonafide revolutionary fights with Faylak Homs, a grassroots brigade that simply means “Homs Legion,” somewhere in northern Homs, most likely the Rastan area.
Those close to Homs regard him as someone mostly unrelated to any outside agents. His fighters are not on the known CIA-approved list of moderate rebels, yet they aren’t strictly Islamist. His character has always appeared to be too loyal to blood and soil for the Islamic State, al-Nusra or any strictly Islamist militia. This loyalty may come at a fault.
Pictures in the blogosphere of Basset holding the Daesh flag (Islamic State) or in reeducation camps are both unverified. In the case of the flag image, the symbol is a universal one used by numerous groups. It states, “Mohammed is the messenger of God.” That symbol is ancient and the text above, which would confirm it as an Islamic State flag, is obscured. Moreover, even if it is an ISIS flag, it doesn’t actually prove that he’s fighting on their behalf. If it his him and it is an ISIS flag, the photo leaked without proclamation from the Islamic State themselves. So the question is, does this photo have power as propaganda?
Verifiable photographs of Basset appear very rarely. Occasionally, he makes appearances by phone or by video, but usually, it is others posting about him where any claims are made at all. He is not concerned with being in the spotlight. Anyone posting about Abdel Basset Sarout should be considered a propagandist, even if it is Talal Derki. Even if it is me.
Because he is an important icon, a valuable target to the regime, and one that represents the integrity of the true Syrian rebel — a dying breed amidst the overwhelming invasion of Islamic State militiants — fighting specifically for his homeland and the right to a representative government therein, Basset will be characterized in an extreme way by whomever wants to boost him or whomever wants to destroy him. It is the journalist’s job to allow the facts to characterize him. I’m just doing my best.
Where Abdel Basset Sarout Has Gotten Himself into Trouble
When the United Nations brokered a ceasefire in Homs to evacuate starving rebels (May 2014), Basset appeared in a translated interview from a truck carrying them to the countryside. He sees it as a stalemate, because the regime regained control of Homs while the rebels were able to regroup, eat, see family, and restock their arsenal. Only months prior, he also appeared in a video and threatened to fire on UN peacekeepers delivering humanitarian services, saying it is demoralizing and humiliating, and that if anything is to be done, it must be to break the siege completely from the grip of Assad, and to give safe passage for all Syrians back to Homs.
Unsuprisingly, when UN personnel arrived, they were attacked. It cannot be verified that it was an order from Basset or if that is the shared attitude toward the UN, whom rebels see as ineffective. It also can’t be verified that the rebels fired on UN members at all — it could have been the regime — but Basset’s own testimony is damning. It is important to remember, politics in wartime requires extraordinary expressions of will, to negotiate a favorable outcome.
Aboud Dandachi, in his op-ed for The Daily Sabah, describes very well the emotional experience he went through as he moved from a position of non-interference to activism.
The event that had suddenly and so jarringly finally gotten me off the fence was the massacre by the regime’s security forces of a large scale demonstration being held at the time in the very center of Homs.
It was that fateful massacre in April of 2011 that ignited civil war, and Homs was ground zero. He was still in Homs when Basset’s family was massacred by Assad’s agents. Dandachi watched from the sidelines as Basset took sides and took up weapons, but only one of them would stay for the fight. He never took up arms and lives as a refugee residing in Istanbul today.
No Clear Path Forward
So although nobody but him and those fighting with him can say for certain where Basset is right now, all signs say that he is not a member of ISIS now, nor will he join. Nobody can be certain he won’t be captured or killed by them or the regime. He is most likely still alive and holding whatever ground his people have.
The Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the north have become the most capable and united front against ISIS, however, they are mostly fighting for their own homeland, which historically straddled northern Syria into Turkey and Iraq. The Syrian regime has allowed for their control over those areas, possibly because they have taken a more defensive position, not encroaching toward the capitol city of Damascus. Assad continues to rule from the capitol, but his enemies are encroaching and growing in number.
Assad’s regime has suffered significant losses to ISIS and US-backed rebels in recent months. Analysts have watched to observe the result of the Iran nuclear deal, which plays into the calculus of Western-intervention, but Obama’s plan to equip vetted rebels while backing them up with air raids will most likely go unchanged. Iran has held onto Assad as their ally and continues to back him, to assert their influence in the region. The nuclear deal could change that relationship.
Although we call it the Syrian Civil War, at this point it looks much more like the first ever World Proxy War, where nations all over the globe are tossing chips into the game. Sadly, in geopolitics, the people of Syria, including Basset, are just pawns.