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Middle East

Iranian-Syrian World Cup qualifier ripples far beyond the pitch

Dr. James M. Dorsey



A nail-biting Iranian-Syrian World Cup qualifier has sent political ripples far beyond the Azadi Stadium’s soccer pitch in Tehran. In a boost for the regime of President Syrian Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian squad’s 2-2 draw was enough for the Syrian team to maintain hopes of Syria reaching the World Cup finals for the first time in its history. 

Similarly, the match in which Syrian women, some with their hair uncovered, were granted access to the stadium while Iranian women fans were barred, has sparked public debate in the Islamic republic about the viability of a ban on women attending men’s sporting events.

In doing so, the match has achieved in Syria what neither the Syrian government or the opposition have been able to accomplish: a momentary sense of unity in a country torn apart by a brutal, six-year old civil war.

Similarly, the match accomplished what international pressure by international sports federations failed to provoke: public pressure and domestic political support for recognizing women’s passive sporting rights.

Neither development is certain to produce a lasting outcome. Syria is more likely to remain splintered even if Syria progresses in its already stunning soccer performance against all odds.

By the same token, support for women’s passive sporting rights in Iran is more likely to be stymied by conservative forces strengthened by the lack of an economic trickle-down as a result of the lifting of international sanctions and the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine the two-year-old nuclear deal.

Nevertheless, the admission of presumably predominantly Syrian Muslim women fans to the match, makes defense of the Iranian ban difficult, if not impossible. The Syrians were admitted on the principle that the Iranian ban does not apply to foreign fans. In past incidents, foreign women admitted into Iranian stadiums came primarily from non-Muslim countries.

The case of the Syrians, however, undermined religious arguments in favour of the ban and projected it as one not based on gender but on nationality. Activists on social media charged that the discrimination against Iranian women was humiliating and insulting.

Adding insult to injury, authorities allowed two women members of parliament to attend the match at the request of Tayebeh Siavoshi, a reformist deputy. Parvaneh Salahshouri, another member of parliament refused the invitation.

“At a time when girls of this country have no choice but to dress as men to get into the stadium, I as a representative of these people would not like to be present in the stadium by receiving a special permit. I go in when they too can come in,” Ms. Salahshouri said.

Ms. Salahshouri was referring to repeated attempts by women to smuggle themselves into Iranian stadiums by disguising themselves as men. A dual British-Iranian national, Ghoncheh Ghavami, was imprisoned in 2014 for attempting to smuggle herself into a stadium to watch a men’s volleyball match. She has since been released.

The differentiation between Syrian and Iranian women prompted an aide to President Hassan Rouhani as well as Islamic scholars known as moderates or reformists to publicly support a lifting of the ban.

“Just as the government managed to pave the way for the presence of women at volleyball matches, the same thing can happen for soccer,” said Ayatollah Mohsen Gharavian.

Iran’s public debate and increased activism in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup qualifier builds on Iran earlier this year allowing women spectators to attend a premier international men’s volleyball tournament on the island of Kish in a rare bowing to international pressure. It constituted a rare occasion on which the Islamic republic did not backtrack on promises to international sports associations to lift its ban on women attending international men’s sporting events. 

The issue of women’s passive sporting rights promises to split not only moderates and hardliners but also the Iranian sports community. Sports Minister Masoud Soltanifar suggested that the government would look at creating facilities for families in stadiums, a formula that like in Saudi Arabia would create separate public spaces for men and for families, including womenfolk. “I am confident that the fans would respect boundaries which need to be respected,” Mr. Soltanifar said.

In an unprecedented move, Peyman Yousefi, a sports anchor on state-run television, said on air minutes before the qualifier that he was disappointed that women had not been allowed to enter the stadium. Earlier, the Iranian Football Association said that it had no plan for allowing women to attend the qualifier after a website for the first time was selling tickets for women as well as for men.

If the role of soccer in war-torn Syria and women’s rights in Iran have anything in common, it is the struggle for unfettered access to stadiums. Nonetheless, if the political ripples of the Iranian-Syrian soccer encounter have any legs, it’s more likely to be the case in Iran than Syria. The qualifier has taken the debate on women’s sporting rights to a new level by pushing it beyond an issue promoted primarily by activists into the political realm.

In Syria, memories of lost ones and the brutality of the Assad regime were never far even as many opponents of the Mr. Al-Assad cheered the Syrian national team, aware that the president would use the match to his political advantage.

Beyond the deep scars of the brutal civil war, militant Syrian fans are however already organizing to counter government moves to politically control the sport. The fans untied this summer to successfully reject an attempt by authorities to identify members of the country’s various groups of ultras, hardcore, often politicized fans.

“They wanted to control them who are going inside the stadium and who’s going out and why. The six ultras groups that are active in Syria now decided not to give them what they want. It is part of our right as ultras and as football fans to be there,” said Nadim Rai, a supporter of Syrian club Hutteen SC.

“In my place in the stadium and you are in another place, I hate you and you hate me. But one hand is strong, but two hands, they are more stronger. So, why we not all stay together, make something, not just football but make something to help our country?” added Rami, a fan of Al Karama SC.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Turkey’s 18-month state of emergency has led to profound human rights violations

MD Staff



The United Nations on Tuesday called on Turkey to end its 18-month-old state of emergency, saying that the routine extension of emergency powers has resulted in “profound” human rights violations against hundreds of thousands of people and may have lasting impact on the country’s socio-economic fabric.

“One of the most alarming findings of the report […] is how Turkish authorities reportedly detained some 100 women who were pregnant or had just given birth, mostly on the grounds that they were ‘associates’ of their husbands, who are suspected of being connected to terrorist organizations,” said Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a news release announcing the findings.

“Some were detained with their children and others violently separated from them. This is simply outrageous, utterly cruel, and surely cannot have anything whatsoever to do with making the country safer,” he added.

While taking note of the complex challenges Turkey has faced in addressing the attempted coup in July 2016, as well as a number of terrorist attacks, the report cites that the sheer number, frequency and lack of connection of several emergency decrees to any national threat seem to point to the use of emergency powers to stifle any form of criticism or dissent vis-à-vis the Government.

During the 18-month state of emergency, nearly 160,000 people have been arrested; 152,000 civil servants dismissed, many arbitrarily; and teachers, judges and lawyers dismissed or prosecuted.

The report also documents the use of torture and ill-treatment in custody, including severe beatings, threats of sexual assault and actual sexual assault, electric shocks and waterboarding by police, gendarmerie, military police and security forces.

It also notes that about 300 journalists have been arrested under allegations that their publications contained “apologist sentiments regarding terrorism” or other “verbal act offences” or for “membership” in terrorist organisations.

Over 100,000 websites were reportedly blocked in 2017, including a high number of pro-Kurdish websites and satellite TV channels.

Covering the period January to December last year, the report also states that the April 2017 referendum which extended the President’s executive powers into both the legislature and the judiciary as seriously problematic, resulting in interference with the work of the judiciary and curtailment of parliamentary oversight over the executive branch.

By the end of 2017, 22 emergency decrees were promulgated with a further two more since the cut-off date of the report.

The report further underlines the need ensure independent, individualized reviews and compensation for victims of arbitrary detentions and dismissals and calls on Turkey to promptly end the state of emergency, restore normal functioning of State institutions, as well as revise and release all legislation not compliant with its international human rights obligations, including the emergency decrees.

“I urge the Government of Turkey to ensure that these allegations of serious human rights violations are investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice,” said Mr. Zeid, also calling on the Government to allow full and unfettered access to his Office (OHCHR) to be able to directly, independently and objectively assess the human rights situation in the southeast of the country.

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Middle East

Saudi moderation: How far will Crown Prince Mohammed go?

Dr. James M. Dorsey



In his effort to improve Saudi Arabia’s badly tarnished image and project the kingdom as embracing an unidentified form of moderate Islam, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has hinted that he envisions a conservative rather than an ultra-conservative society, but not one in which citizens are fully free to make personal, let alone political choices of their own.

Prince Mohammed’s vision, although not spelled out in great detail, seemed evident in an interview with CBS News’ 60 minutes, his first with a Western television program, on the eve of a three-week trip that is taking him across the United States.

The trip is designed to cement relations with the Trump administration following the dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who Prince Mohammed and his United Arab Emirates counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed, viewed as unenthusiastic about their hegemonic designs for a swath of land stretching across the Middle East from the Horn of Africa to South Asia, including the Saudi-UAE-led ten-month old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

The visit comes barely a month before Mr. Trump has to decide whether to pull the United States out of the 2015 international agreement with Iran designed to curb the Islamic republic’s nuclear program. A withdrawal could lead to the agreement’s collapse and spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

“Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” Prince Mohammed, who is locked into existential battle with Iran, told CBS.

It is also intended to project the kingdom as a beacon of moderation rather than a promoter of ultra-conservatism and cutting-edge modernity led by a young reformist but autocratic king-in-waiting.

In a meeting in the White House with Donald J, Trump, on the first day of his visit, both Prince Mohammed and the US president touted the economic benefits of the two countries’ relationship, with massive US arms sales and other deals, including nuclear sales that would involve reducing US safeguards by giving the kingdom the right to enrich uranium. Both leaders asserted that the deals would significantly boost employment in both Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Besides Mr. Trump, Prince Mohammed is scheduled to meet members of Congress, think tanks and academics, oil executives, businessmen and representatives of Silicon Valley’s high-tech industry and Hollywood.

Both Prince Mohammed and Mr. Trump need to demonstrate economic progress to boost or cement their popularity at home. The crown prince needs to demonstrate to Saudis that he is feted as a leader despite mounting international criticism of his conduct of the ill-fated, three-year old war in Yemen, his domestic power and asset grab under the mum of an anti-corruption campaign, the kingdom’s long-standing severe political and social restrictions, and its four-decade long global support for ultra-conservative Sunni Islam.

Beyond concern about the high civilian casualty rate in Yemen and the war having sparked one of the world’s worst current humanitarian crises, many fear that potentially destabilizing anti-Saudi sentiment in the ravaged country will persist long after the guns fall silent.

Those fears are reinforced by contradictory Saudi measures. While on the one hand pledging billions of dollars in aid and allowing at least some relief to get into the country, Saudi Arabia has aggravated the crisis in the country by expelling tens of thousands of Yemeni workers in recent months.

Prince Mohammed also needs to demonstrate that he can attract foreign investment despite the arbitrary nature of the arrest in November of hundreds of senior members of the ruling Al Saud family, prominent businessmen, and high-ranking officials, and reports that at least some of them were abused and tortured during their detention.

Most of the detainees were released after surrendering control of assets and/or paying substantial amounts of money. The government said it expects to raise $100 billion from the asset grab.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the most prominent detainees and the kingdom’s most-high-profile businessman, who seemed to put up a fight during his detention, has since his release in January said that he would be investing in some of Prince Mohammed’s pet projects.

Prince Mohammed bolstered his image by vowing to return Saudi Arabia to an unidentified form of moderate Islam; forcing the country’s ultra-conservative religious establishment to endorse his reforms; suggesting that the kingdom may halt its massive global funding of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism to counter Iran’s revolutionary zeal; surrendering control of the Saudi-managed Great Mosque in Brussels; granting women the right to drive, join the military, and attend male sporting events; and creating a modern entertainment sector.

Despite the boldness of his moves, Prince Mohammed has sent mixed messages about how far he is prepared to go. Women and men mix at concerts and theatre plays but are segregated in the three sport stadiums that have been declared open to women.

While the crown prince has been decisive in his power and asset grab, he has yet to say a clear word about lifting Saudi Arabia’s system of male guardianship that gives male relatives control of their lives. Similarly, there is no indication that gender segregation in restaurants and other public places will be lifted.

Asked about the guardianship, Prince Mohammed evaded specifics. “Today, Saudi women still have not received their full rights. There are rights stipulated in Islam that they still don’t have. We have come a very long way and have a short way to go,” he said.

Middle East Scholar As’ad Abu Khalil, whose blog is named The Angry Arab News Service, posted a picture of Prince Salman’s meeting with Mr. Trump, noting that there was not one woman on either side of the conference table.

Speaking Arabic despite having learnt to speak English by watching movies, Prince Mohammed appeared in his CBS interview to defend allowing a mingling of the sexes in the work place while shying away from ultra-conservative Islam’s ban on a man meeting a woman unaccompanied by a male relative in non-professional or non-public settings.

“We have extremists who forbid mixing between the two sexes and are unable to differentiate between a man and a woman alone together and their being together in a workplace,” Prince Mohammed said.

The crown prince conceded that women had the right to determine what to wear if their clothes were “decent, respectful clothing, like men.” He did not define what would constitute decent but insisted that it did not have to be a “black abaya or a black head cover.”

No doubt, Prince Mohammed’s social reforms and promised economic change provide him significant arrows in his multimillion dollar public relations blitz. That is getting him the support of the White House.

“Getting a strong presidential endorsement of the crown prince’s trip to the U.S. to encourage investment in Saudi Arabia, that, I think, could be something that could be done,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Translating that into real policy and dollars and cent could, however, prove to be a harder sell.

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Middle East

The role of spin doctors in the Eastern Ghouta crisis

Silvia Fornaroli



When it comes to war, it is exceedingly important to get all the facts straight: always remember there are—at least—two sides to every story and be careful to distinguish reality from propaganda.

Many words have been spoken about the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ghouta: the Damascus district, in fact, is paying the price of the umpteenth conflict between pro-Syrian government forces and rebels.

The protests against President Bashar al-Assad have been going on in the area since 2011 and the next year the rebel fighters managed to establish their control over the territory.

The initial tensions rapidly developed into a full-blown war that did not spared civilians—including a large percentage of children—from being a target.

In the last few weeks, a global campaign of solidarity—#IAmStillAlive—has been launched on social media platforms to support the children trapped in the rebel-held enclave, where there is almost no food left, nor medical supplies and humanitarian access has been completely cut off.

In this regard, it is necessary to remember that international aid convoys have been regularly delivered from the United Nations, the Syrian government, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and Russia. It became known, anyway, that the supplies do not always reach civilians falling, instead, directly in the hands of the rebels.

But who are exactly the so-called “rebels”?

Numerous groups are active inside the besieged region and, despite being in opposition to each other, they stand together against the Syrian Arab Army.

Jaysh al-Islam represents the largest factionwith an estimated 10-15,000 members. Formerly allied with Al-Nusra Front—al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria— they conducted several deadly attacks, such as the infamous “Adra massacre”.

The Syrian Military claimed that in last December 2013 over 80 people were executed in the city of Adra and, during the following days, dozens of others were kidnapped and use as human shields.

Geopolitical analyst Patrick Henningsen believes that the foreign encouragement of rebel forces was to blame for that tragedy; in an interview with RT he goes even further, claiming that “there is involvement by the Western intelligence agencies that have links to some of those radical jihadist groups.

The Hay’-at Tharir al-Sham and the Faylaq al-Rahman—which is also affiliated to the Free Syrian Armyorganizations are linked to al-Qaeda and they are responsible for a huge amount of atrocities, including the heinous attack that took place on 16 December 2016 in the Al-Midan neighborhood in Damascus, when jihadi-father Abu Nimr al-Suri sent his two daughters to die in a suicide-bombing attack against the police station.

The Ahrar al-Sham coalition is probably the biggest terrorist group in Syria and it is currently aligned with Jaysh al-Islam against al-Nusra Front.

The criminal organizations above—some more than others—aim at the extermination of Syrian religious minorities, proving themselves to be nothing but terrorist groups.

Furthermore, they are said to have received “donations” from Saudi Arabia, Qatar ,Turkey and the US, although they rejected those claims.

The Western Media seemed initially reluctant to highlight the Tafkiri-Jihadi inspired nature of the rebels, depicting them as “moderate rebels” or “freedom fighters”.

Once again, it is necessary to check the accuracy of sources of information and report on solid facts exclusively.

It can be quite tricky, since much of the country is inaccessible to journalists on the ground and news coming out is often filtered through “media activists” or unofficial outlets.

Every major newspaper and outlet gleaned the information from the often quoted Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based monitoring group—actually a one-man band—run by Rami Abdul Rahman.

According to the New York Times “military analysts in Washington follow its body counts of Syrian and rebel soldiers to gauge the course of the war,” as well as providing mainstream media with daily updates about the Syrian crisis.

In the same article from the NYT, he admitted to receive “small subsidies from the European Union and one European country that he declines to identify.

Mr. Abdul Rahman—born Osama Suleiman—is a three-term convicted criminal in Syria, due to his years of activism against the Assad regime.

He fled to the United Kingdom eighteen years ago and the government relocated him to Coventry, in the West Midlands region; he has not returned to his home country ever since.

In the UK, he has had direct access to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, where has been documented meeting with the former Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Both Hague and current Foreign Minister Tobias Ellwood endorse Rahman’s political position.

Among Rahman’s network of contacts there is Rafid al-Janabi, better known as “Curveball”. The Iraqi defector played a crucial role in the 2003 Iraq War, falsely accusing Saddam Hussein of having weapons of mass destruction and pushing the US and its allies into launching offensive.

In 2011 he eventually admitted that he “had the chance to fabricate something to topple the regime,” and spread the fake information that became the centerpiece of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s pro-intervention speech at the United Nations.

It is hard to believe that the Western press never considered to examine its main source’s political connections and background before using hisnot-necessarily-objective reports.

Funded in 2013 by  ex-military officerJames Le Mesurier, the White Helmets NGO aims to rescue civilian survivors trapped in bombed buildings and the people who   volunteer for the corps are hailed as some sort of heroes in the West.

The Netflix heart-breaking Oscar-winning documentary (“The White Helmets”, 2016) focuses indeed on the “perilous work of volunteers who brave falling bombs to rescue civilians from the carnage of Syria’s civil war.”

They present themselves as an unarmed, non-governmental and neutralorganization, yet they have had a leading role in various controversial events.

Although they claim to be apolitical, they actually actively campaign for a no-fly zone and they are largely funded by Western governments which advocate for regime change.Their principal funder is, in fact, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), along with the UK, and Europe.

They work exclusively in rebel-controlled areas, which raised doubts about the independence of their reports; in addition, some volunteers happened to be photographed while assisting in terrorist executions.

In 2016 members of the group were caught staging a rescue scene, later justified as their version of the popular ‘mannequin challenge,’ in which people were supposed to freeze for the camera. They apologized for the fact calling it an “error of judgment,” but the footage has been subject of harsh criticism on social media.

This does not mean that their effort as rescue workers is unappreciated, but it truly indicates the need to examine whatever information they provide with a critical eye.

In order to understand the reasons that could lead media to distort information, we have to introduce the concept of “spin”.

Spin is a form of propaganda used by public relations agencies—referred as “spin doctors” in this case—which provide a biased interpretation of facts and data to influence public perception on significant matters.

Cited as an invaluable source of information by Western media outlets, the Syria Campaign is a public relations and marketing company that, among other operations, branded and promoted the White Helmets to the international public.

The agency presents itself as impartial and non-political, yet they not only called for a no-fly zone, but also pushed for military intervention in several occasions.

They even attacked the UN’s work in Syria by publishing a 50-page report on a dedicated website that used a UN logo soaked in blood.

Ironically, among the supporters of their anti-UN campaign was the previously mentioned Ahrar Al-Sham.

The supposed most-reliable media outlets feed us altered and even fake news sometimes.

The majority of information we have about the Syria’s war do not come from  disinterested observers: citizen journalists and activists, in fact, are either pro-rebel or pro-regime, which is no guarantee of objectivity.

In conclusion, we have a duty to question where the news is coming from, whether it has been manipulated or whether there is an intentional attempt to shape our own opinion.

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