'Goalkeeper of the revolution' killed by Syrian regime forces
A football star who became an icon of the Syrian revolution was killed in a battle with regime forces, rebels said on Saturday.
Abdelbaset al-Sarout, 27 years old, rose to prominence as a goalkeeper for his home city Homs, a bastion of early revolutionary protests since subjected to a devastating siege and recaptured by Bashar al-Assad's regime. He also won international titles representing Syria.
When peaceful protesters took to the streets eight years ago, calling for an end to Assad's stranglehold on power, Sarout gained a second stardom as a revolutionary icon.
He was known as the "singer of the revolution" for the songs and ballads with which he led rallies.
As the revolution descended into an intractable civil war, with Assad's forces supported by Russia and Iran, Sarout took up arms and led a unit of fighters throughout the siege of Homs.
Hundreds of rebel fighters, Sarout among them, were "evacuated" from Homs in 2014 under a deal of surrender which brought an end to the years-long suffocating siege. Two of his brothers died in the fight for Homs.
When that armed battle - initially characterised by defected soldiers and protesters protecting their own neigbourhoods - became dominated by increasingly hard-line Islamist groups, Sarout was seen as a representative of the original aims of the revolution, although later, more hard-line statements made by the goalkeeper have marred his memory for some.
He came to be known as the "guardian of freedom", a play on the Arabic word for goalkeeper.
The former star goalkeeper died on Saturday from wounds sustained two days earlier during fighting with regime forces in northern Hama province, Captain Mustafa Maarati, spokesman for Jaish al-Izza, said.
Jaish al-Izza is a rebel group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Sarout was a commander of one of its units, named after his hometown.
"He was both a popular figure, guiding the rebellion, and a military commander," said Jaish al-Izza leader Major Jamil al-Saleh. "His martyrdom will give us a push to continue down the path he chose and to which he offered his soul and blood as sacrifice."
Fighting in northern Hama and southern Idlib provinces escalated in early May when the Syrian regime and its Russian allies launched a long-feared ground offensive to recapture lost territory.
In the run-up to the ground offensive, the regime and Russia also escalated their aerial attacks on the area.
The aerial bombardment has caused the damage or destruction of at least 24 medical facilities and the deaths of more than 300 civilians, as well as the displacement of 300,000 people.
The northwestern zone is the last stronghold for Syria's rebels, although it is majority controlled by the extremist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.
Outpouring of memorials
Sarout's death has prompted an outpouring of heartfelt memorials from Syrians and allies on social media.
Many said that his journey, part of which is depicted in the 2013 documentary film "Return to Homs", had mirrored that of the Syrian revolution itself.
"For a while Sarout stopped fighting and went to Turkey but then he returned and became increasingly hard line. He adopted ever more radical and hardline positions, expressing more sectarian and extreme views. But he was not an outright 'jihadist' as some will suggest," tweeted Dr Shiraz Maher, a research analyst focusing on Syria.
Sarout later denied rumours that he had joined the Islamic State group.
"Sarout was a nationalist who hated Assad. He was a revolutionary buffeted by events," said Maher.
Elizabeth Tsurkov, a research analyst focusing on Syria, added: "His personal path reflects that of the uprising. From peaceful protests he led along an Alawi activist (Fadwa Suleiman), to local rebel, then supporter of al-Qaeda, then FSA commander."
Despite the complexity of Sarout's later years, what remained clear, Tskurkov said, is that the rebel commander was still a popular icon for many. What remains for supporters of the Syrian revolution, it seems, is the memory of Sarout leading crowds of peaceful protesters in song.
"To get #Syria, know how it felt to watch Abdelbasset Sarout, Karama FC goalie, leading Homs in song for freedom & dignity under savage Assad assault, as youngsters swayed in unison chanting," explained Syrian Rime Allaf.