Goalkeeper turned rebel fighter dies in northwest Syria
A Syrian goalkeeper turner rebel fighter who starred in an award-winning documentary died Saturday of wounds sustained fighting regime forces in northwestern Syria, his faction said.
Abdel-Basset al-Sarout, 27, was among dozens of fighters killed since Thursday in violent clashes on the edges of the Idlib region of some three million people.
That region dominated by an alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate is supposed to be protected by a buffer zone deal, but has come under deadly regime bombardment in recent weeks.
Sarout was a youth goalkeeper from the central city of Homs, who became its most popular singer of protest songs after the Syrian uprising broke out in March 2011.
Following a brutal government crackdown on peaceful protests, he took up arms against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Sarout starred in the documentary “Return to Homs” by Syrian director Talal Derki, which tracked his evolution from protest leader to fighter, and won a top prize at the Sundance film festival in 2014.
Jameel al-Saleh, commander of the rebel faction Jaish al-Izza, announced Sarout’s death in a message on Twitter, describing him as a “martyr” who died “fighting for the sake of God”.
The message was accompanied by a video showing Sarout singing “We will be back, Homs”, referring his hometown since lost by rebels to the Syrian government.
– ‘Goalkeeper, bard’ and fighter –
Another of the group’s commanders, Mahmoud al-Mahmoud, also confirmed the fighter’s death.
“He was a well-mannered young man and one of the fiercest fighters I have known,” he told AFP.
“Sarout was wounded before yesterday in the battle to liberate Tal Maleh,” a village in the north of Hama province, he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sarout was wounded in overnight battles Thursday to Friday while fighting in the ranks of Jaish al-Izza.
“He died of his wounds on Saturday,” said the head of the Britain-based monitor, Rami Abdel Rahman.
Sarout was evacuated from Homs in 2014 under a surrender deal with the regime to end a two-year siege of its historical centre, according to the Observatory.
His father and four of his brothers were killed during bombardment and clashes in Homs, it said.
On Saturday, Syrian activists and opposition figures took to Twitter to mourn the loss of the footballer turned fighter.
“The goalkeeper of freedom, the icon of Homs, the bard of the squares, the unforgettable sound of the Syrian revolution has been martyred,” researcher and opposition supporter Ahmad Abazeed said.
Hadi al-Bahra, a member of the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission, posted: “Sarout will remain alive.”
“He died hoping to realise the dreams of Syrians,” he added.
– Violent clashes –
Tal Maleh lies on the southwestern edge of the Idlib region, which is dominated by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) alliance.
Almost half of the region’s three million residents have been displaced from other parts of the war-torn country, including after deals to return government control to those areas.
Assad’s forces are in control of almost 60 percent of Syria, after a series of victories against rebels and jihadists with Russian military backing since 2015.
But a large northeastern swathe of the country, as well as the Idlib region, remain out of its reach.
The Idlib region, which spans most of Idlib province and includes slivers of neighbouring Latakia, Aleppo and Hama provinces, is supposed to be protected by a September buffer zone deal signed by regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey.
But the regime and its allies have upped their deadly bombardment of the region since late April, killing more than 330 civilians, according to the Observatory.
The violence has also forced more than 270,000 people to flee their homes, and hit 24 health facilities, the United Nations says.
Late Thursday, HTS and rebel allies launched a counterattack against government forces in the area of Tal Maleh.
Almost 170 fighters have since been killed, according to the Observatory.
On Saturday alone, 37 regime fighters and 28 jihadists and allied rebels were killed in the fighting, the Observatory said.
Analysts predict the regime will continue to chip away at the area, but not unleash a major assault that would create chaos on Turkey’s doorstep.
Syria’s war has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started more than eight years ago.