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20 March 2019updated 25 Jun 2021 6:21am

The death of Abdul Baset Sarout, Syria’s singing soldier

By Shiraz Maher

The songbird of the Syrian revolution, Abdul Baset Sarout, was killed on 8 June while fighting against forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. A totemic figure within the rebel movement, Sarout died from injuries sustained while fighting with Jaish al-Izza (“Army of Glory”), an affiliate of the Free Syrian Army.

Sarout first achieved fame during the incipient phases of the uprising when he began singing at street protests in his hometown of Homs, the epicentre of the 2011 uprising. It was a different world then. Arab dictators were falling across North Africa and, for a while, it seemed as if Assad would also be unseated. Syria’s rebels were filled with optimism as protests swept the country and an organic, secular movement agitated for change. Sarout became emblematic of that hope.

A professional footballer for Al-Karamah FC, he also represented Syria at under-17 and under-20 level; he was just 19 when the rebellion began. Sarout quickly established himself as a revolutionary leader in Homs, often appearing alongside the Syrian actress Fadwa Suleiman.

Even this was a significant act. Suleiman, who died in exile in Paris in 2017, belonged to the heterodox Alawite sect from which the Assad family originates, and which has remained broadly loyal to him. When Assad tried to characterise the 2011 protest movement as being led by Sunni extremists, alliances such as these undermined the regime’s propaganda.

In those early days, we witnessed the emergence of an authentically Syrian movement that cut across political, religious and ethnic lines. It was not to last. By the end of 2011, the regime had made it clear that it viewed the uprising as a zero-sum game and would do whatever necessary to maintain control. Homs bore the brunt of Assad’s first onslaught.

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Tanks were dispatched there in early 2012, and key areas such as Baba Amr, Khalidiyah and Qussor were sealed off. No one could get in and no one could leave. It was an early demonstration of the pitiless tactics the regime would pursue in its attempt to hold on to power. For weeks, those trapped inside were subjected to indiscriminate shelling. Hundreds died, including Marie Colvin, the celebrated Sunday Times reporter, and Rémi Ochlik, a French photojournalist.

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Sarout escaped the chaos, but the optimism of Syria’s revolutionaries was evaporating. The Free Syrian Army, which originally consisted of military defectors, began enlisting everyday Syrians as the crisis mutated into a full-scale insurrection. Sarout transitioned from singer to soldier and enjoyed newfound prominence.

During the government’s 2014 siege of Homs, which ultimately resulted in the regime retaking the city, Sarout rallied fighters with his songs. One of the most prominent at the time was “Who saved the Arabs’ honour, but Homs?” It was celebrated for its message of brazen defiance – but it also carried a sectarian tone. Various passages state that Sunni rage is boiling over and that they will never submit to the Shias. Historical sectarian enmities are also alluded to.

This shift reflected the changing circumstances of the Syrian revolution, which had a profound impact on Sarout. As the hope of 2011 dissipated, he adopted more extreme positions. By the time the siege of Homs was over, he had lost his father, four brothers, and five uncles. Other relatives had also disappeared into the subterranean and labyrinthine web of Syria’s prison estate, where torture is endemic.

Later, when it appeared that jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda would succeed in overthrowing Assad, Sarout endorsed them too – although he later denounced aspects of the jihadist movement and was, for a period, arrested by al-Qaeda’s successor organisation in Syria, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Lazy assessments have characterised Sarout as an extremist but, as with almost everything to do with the long Syrian war, the truth is less straightforward. In many senses his path, with its twists and turns, is a microcosm for the civil war itself. 

Sarout was, at heart, a Syrian nationalist overtaken by events. He embraced arms only after the government brutalised the protest movement. He was a romantic idealist buffeted by circumstance. In the pursuit of unseating Assad, he proved willing to work with anyone, reflecting the pragmatic but difficult choices that Syrians have had to make since 2011.

That accounts for his broad appeal across the rebel movement, which is fractured and factionalised. Following his death, funeral prayers were held across rebel territory. This was unusual: fighters tend only to be honoured by the groups to which they are affiliated. Even prominent jihadi leaders, such as the Saudi cleric Abdullah al-Muhaysini, were compelled to eulogise him in effusive terms, describing Sarout as a “lion”, “hero” and a “beautiful martyr”.

The battle that claimed Sarout’s life is taking place along the border of Hama province, as rebels seek to push the regime away from Idlib, which is now the last redoubt for the beleaguered opposition in north-western Syria. For revolutionaries, his passing is yet another reminder of their doomed ambitions to unseat Assad – and of the regime’s murderous commitment to hunting down its opponents.

“Sarout was at the forefront of the peaceful Syrian revolutionaries who persisted in anti-regime demonstrations and sit-in protests,” the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces noted. “We bid farewell to one of the most true symbols of the Syrian revolution.” 

Shiraz Maher is an NS contributing writer

This article appears in the 19 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news