Syrian Soccer Star, Symbol of Revolt, Dies After Battle

Syrian Soccer Star, Symbol of Revolt, Dies After Battle

BEIRUT — A Syrian soccer star who became a symbol of the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad has died after being wounded in a battle with government forces, the rebels said Saturday.

Abdul Baset al-Sarout, 27, rose to fame as a goalkeeper for his home city of Homs and won international titles representing his country. When peaceful protests broke out against Mr. al-Assad in 2011, Mr. al-Sarout led rallies and became known as the “singer of the revolution” for his ballads.

When Syria slid into civil war, Mr. al-Sarout took up arms. He led a unit of fighters against government forces and survived the government siege of Homs. The government declared Mr. al-Sarout a traitor, banning him from soccer and offering a reward for information leading to his arrest.

He remained an icon among Syria’s opposition as the rebellion came to be dominated by hard-line Islamist groups. Many activists and rebels came to refer to him as the “guardian of freedom,” a play on the Arabic word for goalkeeper.

“He was both a popular figure, guiding the rebellion, and a military commander,” said Maj. Jamil al-Saleh, leader of the rebel group Jaish al-Izza, in which Mr. al-Sarout was a commander. “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.”

Since April, fighting has escalated in northwestern Syria, the last major rebel stronghold. More than 300 people have died and 300,000 have been displaced as troops have pushed into the rebel enclave.

Capt. Mustafa Maarati, the spokesman for Jaish al-Izza, said Mr. al-Sarout died in a hospital in Turkey after being hurt in the leg, stomach and hand two days earlier in Hama Province. Turkey supports the Syrian opposition.

Mr. al-Sarout was among hundreds of rebel fighters evacuated from Homs in 2014 after a suffocating government siege ended with a surrender deal and a cease-fire. Two of his brothers died in the fight for Homs. Two other brothers and his father were killed earlier in the war.

In Jaish al-Izza, he led a unit named after his hometown. He repeatedly denounced rebel infighting and called on Syrians to unite against government forces.

In a recording in 2015, Mr. al-Sarout denied he had joined any of the radical groups that proliferated in Homs and northern Syria as the war dragged on. But like many rebels, he adopted more religious references in online videos after initially sticking to nationalist themes. He had recently appeared in a video from Hama saying he would fight as though it were his hometown.

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