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Ten years of war in Syria and the current situation (I)

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I will focus on Syria in several articles, considering the importance the country has had in international relations for centuries.

Ten years ago, a civil war broke out in Syria. What is special about this conflict? What is currently happening in the country? How are Syrians living and what are they experiencing? Is there any prospect of achieving peace?

On March 15, 2011, one of the first major protests against Bashar al-Assad’s regime took place in Damascus. At that juncture, the strength of the remotely controlled “Arab Spring” put on the table the probability that a relatively young Bashar al-Assad (at the beginning of the crisis he was 45 years old, eleven of them spent as President of the country) would not remain in power. However, the reality turned out differently, given the traditional strength of Syrian Arab secularism, an opponent of Islamist terrorism from time immemorial – along with Algeria, Egypt, the Lebanon, Tunisia, Iraq and Libya at the time.

As a result, the war in Syria has become the deadliest conflict of the 21st century. In 2021 the death toll has reached an estimated 600,000 people and several million Syrians have become refugees. Considering the conflicts of the second half of the last century in terms of casualties, the Syrian war is still surpassed by the first Iranian-Iraqi Gulf War, which caused some 700,000 deaths from 1980 to 1988.

The migration of refugees has significantly changed the internal political situation in the countries where they have been forced to seek refuge: mainly Turkey, the Lebanon and Jordan, as well as the European Union’s Member States, including Germany which has shrewdly grabbed the intellectual elite of refugees while, as usual, Italy is lagging behind like a third wheel.

Syria has become a territory of open rivalry between world and regional powers: Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States of America openly keep their troops on its territory. Dozens of countries are involved in the war through various paramilitary and political groups supporting the various factions.

For ten years the conflict has gone through several phases. From 2013 to 2017 Syria became the territory in which the first “Caliphate” was created since March 3, 1924. The civil war, with other countries’ participation, was complemented by a war with terrorists – in the beginning supported by the usual suspects – whose permanence in Syria caused not only thousands of new victims, but also the destruction of cultural monuments of world value.

Once one of the most successful countries in the region and a beacon of Islamic secularism, Syria has become a centre of gravity for political extremists and international terrorists – a test case in relations between Iranians and Israelis, Turks and Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, as well as Russia and the USA. This war has described a mixed picture of conflict.

The duration of the war is not accidental but entirely natural. From the beginning, there was a strong presence of external forces and players in the country, which predetermined everything.

On July 15, 2011, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced that it considered the internal political situation in Syria a civil war and demanded that international humanitarian law be respected in the country.

On July 29, the rebels already had an army financed by the usual suspects: Syrian officers disloyal to the regime, led by Colonel Riyad Assad, announced the creation of the so-called Free Syrian Army.

Almost from the very beginning, the interests of the countries in the region and of the world powers were manifested in the conflict. In 2014, fighters from the Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS) began to infiltrate from neighbouring Iraq. In the autumn of 2015, the terrorists were at the gates of Damascus.

In 2014 the United States, which was leading the counter-terrorism coalition, began targeting their positions in Syria. In October 2015, Russia began its own counter-terrorist operation. In late 2017 Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the defeat of the terrorists and the United States of America also acknowledged the ISIS defeat.

At that juncture, the military forces of Assad’s legitimate government began to restore control over the country’s territory.

The attempts to resolve the conflict peacefully have so far failed. The basis for the agreement are the principles adopted in Geneva in 2012: the creation of a transitional government with all stakeholders’ participation; the holding of Presidential and Parliamentary elections; the creation of new authorities. One of the elements of the agreement should be the adoption of a new Constitution: on October 30, 2019, the Syrian Constitutional Committee began its work. However, its participants (gathered in Geneva) have not yet begun to directly draft the new text. Therefore, the Presidential elections (held on May 26, 2021) were held according to the current legislation, and saw the victory of Bashar al-Assad with 95.19% of the votes – i.e. 13,540,860 Syrians (including refugees abroad), with their vote, rejected the attempts of those from abroad who were trying to change the political system of their country.

Ten years after the start of the war, most of the country is back under the control of traditional Syrian institutions.

It should be noted that general elections were held in July 2020, which brought the following 250 representatives to the People’s Assembly: 167 seats for the (transnational) Arab Baath Socialist Party; 50 seats for the Independents not aligned with the Syrian government; 17 seats for the Independents aligned with the Syrian government; 3 seats for the Syrian Arab Socialist Union Party (Nasserites); 3 seats for the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (Grand Syrians); 2 seats for the National Covenant Party (Nationalists); 2 seats for the Syrian Socialist Unionist Party (leftist Nasserites); 2 seats for the (anti-revisionist) Syrian Communist Party-Bakdash; 2 seats for the Syrian Communist Party-Unified (Gorbachevians); 1 seat for the Syrian Democratic Union Party (Nasserites); 1 seat for the Arab Democratic Unionist Party (Nasserites); 1 seat for the Democratic Socialist Unionist Party (Nasserites).

Nevertheless, large areas in the North along the border with Turkey are currently controlled by pro-Turkish forces: Turkey ‘s three military operations have created a buffer zone on the border. Turkey is building hospitals and medical schools, as well as opening branches of universities and disconnecting power lines from its territory in order to supply the region with electricity (at a price of 0.09 dollars per kilowatt).

Along the border closest to Iraq there is the area of responsibility of the Kurds, who historically live there but opposed Assad during the war. They are supported by the United States of America, which maintains bases in Syria, including the protection of oil fields. In fact, the areas controlled by Russia and the USA are larger because of their use of aviation.

Two other areas remain under terrorist control: in Idlib, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and ISIS. The areas in the south-west (Deraa and Quneitra Provinces) are controlled by several armed opposition groups that have reconciled with Assad’s government.

Syria has been under US sanctions since December 1979. Currently, along with Syria, the US list of countries sponsoring terrorism includes Cuba, Iran and North Korea. These countries are not eligible to receive financial assistance from the United States of America and are also subject to a ban on the export of dual-use goods and to financial restrictions. Later the USA imposed further restrictions, which were tightened after the outbreak of the war in 2011. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) threatened restrictions on individuals and organisations providing financial assistance to the Syrian government.

Before the outbreak of the war, however, Syria was one of the richest countries in the region. In the period from 2011 to 2018, the country’s annual GDP fell by almost two-thirds, from 55 billion to 20 billion US dollars. During the war years, the lives of 80% of Syrians fell below the poverty line and the average life expectancy was reduced by 20 years. The country suffers from a shortage of doctors and nurses, teachers, technicians and skilled civil servants.

During the war years, centres of influence and shadow structures were created, which were not interested in the transition to peaceful development, although in the Syrian society, in the economic circles of the real economy sectors and among some civil servants, a demand for political reforms was emerging. In an atmosphere of constant fear, however, dialogue does not seem to be opening up.

This year may be one of the most difficult for Syria: the budget is lower than in any year of the conflict. In Syrian lira, its volume has increased, but it is only 3.36 billion US dollars, 10% less than in the previous year. The main problems are the following: the depreciation of the Syrian lira (before the conflict, the exchange rate was 45 Syrian lira for a dollar, this year it has reached an all-time low – 1,257.86 lira for a dollar – and on the black market it can reach four thousand lira); the increase in food prices (for many products, prices have doubled); the lack of oil and gas. The UN World Food Programme estimates that 60% of Syrians (about 12.4 million people) are at risk of hunger. For example, a vegetable seller in Damascus with a family of nine children earns five dollars a day. Two of his children do not go to school because he cannot afford to pay for it. One of his children leaves for Germany and tries to support them. Another child spends three to five hours a day queuing for bread, the prices of which are subsidised by the State. Without the subsidy, six loaves cost 0.35 dollars: six times the price of State-subsidized bread. Due to a shortage of flour, however, many State-subsidised bakeries operate intermittently.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

Middle East

Protest emerges as a mixed blessing for World Cup host Qatar

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Protest on the soccer pitch has proven to be a mixed blessing for World Cup host Qatar, exposing double standards in the Gulf state’s position as well as that of its critics.

Qatar embraced protest when it supported Qatari policies, such as the Gulf state’s increasingly assertive denunciation of double standards in Western criticism of discrimination against LGBT people or its refusal to establish diplomatic relations with Israel in the absence of a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, protesters and foreign media quickly encountered the limits of Qatari tolerance and notions of freedom of expression when they touched on politically sensitive issues, ranging from support for LGBT rights to solidarity with demonstrators in Iran, who have defied a brutal crackdown by security forces in more than two months of anti-government manifestations.

As a result, the debate on double standards at times amounted to the kettle calling the pot black.

That is not to question the legitimacy of criticism levelled by Qatar and its critics at each other. However, it is to note that both parties’ credibility is in question because of their inconsistencies and failures to put their own houses in order.

“On one level, the World Cup is unfolding smoothly. On another, we go from crisis to crisis,” said a journalist covering the tournament for a major Western news organisation.

Photographers were often on the frontline as Qatari authorities stopped them from snapping pictures of security forces preventing fans from wearing clothing to matches or taking into stadiums paraphernalia that signalled support for Iranian protesters or LGBT rights.

‘The real test case will be when the United States plays Iran. That could be the crescendo in the clash over what protesters and media can and cannot do,” said another journalist.

The November 29 match is likely the World Cup’s most politically charged game, with talks to revive the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme all but dead and Iraq-mediated negotiations with archrival Saudi Arabia suspended.

Iran accuses the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel of inciting the sustained anti-government protests.

The US Soccer Federation joined the fray with Iran ahead of the two nations’ World Cup match when it briefly displayed Iran’s national flag on social media without the emblem of the Islamic Republic, saying the move was in support of protesters in Iran.

Iran accused the federation of removing the name of God from their national flag and said it would complain to FIFA. However, US Soccer later restored the Islamic republic’s flag on social media.

Meanwhile, Qatari nationals, intending to protest against Western double standards in criticism of the Gulf state, didn’t encounter problems entering the stadium to watch Germany’s group stage match against Spain.

During the game, Qataris displayed pictures of former German national team player Mesut Özil, a German-born descendant of Turkish immigrants, while covering their mouths in protest against German double standards.

Mr. Özil quit the German team after becoming a target of racist abuse and a scapegoat for Germany’s early World Cup exit in 2018.

The Qatari demonstration was in response to Germany’s team covering their mouths at a group photo in advance of an earlier match against Japan in protest against FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s banning players from wearing One Love bands during games.

In the same vein, prominent Qataris wore pro-Palestinian armbands to the Germany Japan match to counter the pro-LGBT One Love band sported by German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser during the game.

Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, signalled the Gulf state’s greater assertiveness in countering criticism when he lamented some three weeks before the kickoff of the World Cup that Qatar had been “subjected to an unprecedented campaign,” scrutiny, and scorn “that no host country has faced.”

In an indication that human rights, labour, and LGBT groups may be losing leverage, the emir said that “we initially dealt with the matter in good faith, and even considered some of criticism as positive and useful… (But) it soon became clear that the campaign tends to continue and expand to include fabrications and double standards that were so ferocious that it has unfortunately prompted many people to question real reasons and motives behind this campaign.”

The critics’ problem is their past failure to tackle with equal ferocity issues of human rights, prejudice, and bigotry in the run-up to the 2018 Russian World Cup, as well as to separate the wheat from the chafe by distancing themselves from criticism of Qatar that was laced with bias and racism.

In doing so, critics are as much their own worst enemy as they have been drivers of social change in Qatar.

By allowing Qatar to deflect criticism by calling into question critics’ credibility, activists have enabled the Gulf state to take its counteroffensive to the next level.

A week into the World Cup, Qatar was reviewing, according to the Financial Times, its substantial investments in London after the city’s transport authority suspended advertising from the Gulf state because of the controversies over worker and LGBT rights.

Qatari investments include London’s landmark Harrods department store; The Shard, an iconic 72-storey skyscraper; and Canary Wharf, part of the city’s central business district. Qatar also owns Chelsea Barracks, the Savoy and Grosvenor House hotels, 22 per cent of Sainsbury’s supermarkets, six per cent of Barclays bank, and 20 per cent of Heathrow airport.

“Countries like…Qatar…view their investments as strategic bribes to mute criticism and resist reforms,” said Radha Stirling, a London-based lawyer who represents expatriates in the Gulf who run into legal difficult

To be fair, Qatar was one of 11 countries in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia that were banned in 2019 from advertising by Transport for London on the grounds of human rights violations. Nevertheless, the agency allowed some Qatari advertising promoting the Gulf state as a tourist destination until last week’s World Cup kickoff, when it decided to implement the ban fully.

Even so, the list reinforced the notion of double standards by failing to include China at the height of its brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the northwestern province of Xinjiang; Russia that was annexing Ukrainian territory, repressing LGBT people, and attempting to assassinate its critics at home and abroad; and Israel with its increasingly racial policies towards Palestinians.

Qatar is likely to be the first of numerous rights-focussed Middle Eastern battlegrounds, with countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt hosting or preparing bids to host multiple major sporting events, including Asian Cup competitions, the 2030 World Cup, and the 2036 Summer Olympics.

The bids constitute a rich and legitimate hunting ground for human, worker, and LBGT rights activists. However, their effectiveness will, to a significant extent, depend on their ability to put their own house in order.

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Iran on the Threshold of Another Syrianization

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Image source: Wikipedia

In the last few years, a new word has been added to the political vocabulary “Syrianization”. This new word means turning a country into a land without a government, in the common sense of a burnt, lawless land, every part of which is under the control of an armed mafia group.

The leaders of the Islamic Republic, who are now shaken by the mass movement of the Iranian people, are warning to save themselves that Iran may also be destroyed. In other words, our choice is limited to living or half-living under the rule of jurisprudential tyranny or falling into the second Syria.

How did Syria become Syrian? In the beginning, nearly 12 years ago, a group of Syrian youths came to the street in Daraa city to protest the continued suffocation, the spread of unemployment and the darkness of their life horizons. This demonstration was completely peaceful. The protesters didn’t set fire to anything and didn’t shout any incendiary slogans. If Syria had a government in the conventional sense that day, the wise way to respond to these protests would be to send a delegation from the central government in Damascus to listen to the protesters and find ways to fulfill at least part of their demands.

But the government of Bashar al-Assad, the president, was not a normal government. This was a government monopolized by a military-security-commercial minority, which itself was a minority within the framework of the Nasiri religious minority, which is also a minority in Shia Gholat, which is also a minority in the Islamic religion. Thus, accepting the Daraa protesters as equal citizens was not acceptable for the minority in question. In the political sphere of Assad and his Baath Arab Socialist Party, the government commands and the people, who are degraded to the level of subjects, obey. In this world, the answer to protest is bullets or prison.

However, the bloodbath that occurred in the valley did not end the protests. Within a few days, the Syrian people’s movement reached Hama, Aleppo, Sweida and Damascus. This time, some prominent figures of the Baathist regime demanded a political response to the protests in secret meetings with the regime leaders. But a regime that knows nothing but lies and repression could not take advantage of the tools offered by politics to solve society’s problems and get out of crises.

At a critical stage in 2012, Bashar al-Assad thought to save the entire Baathist regime by leaving the scene. The mood of those days was described by Brigadier General Hossein Hamdani, one of the officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran who was sent to Syria, in a long conversation, a year before his death in Syria. According to Hamdani, they packed their bags to leave in Damascus because at that time a part of the Syrian army had broken away from the Assad regime and hoped to conquer the capital by establishing the “Free Syrian Army”.

Although it can be said that Hamedani has exaggerated the importance of Tehran’s involvement, there is no doubt that the message of the leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to Bashar al-Assad was not ineffective in changing the opinion of the dictator of Damascus to leave the scene. Khamenei’s message was simple: stay and resist! We give whatever you want!

In the decade since that day, the Islamic Republic has spent more than 20 billion dollars in Syria, according to experts’ estimates. Tehran has also created several military units to fight against the Syrian people and for the benefit of Bashar al-Assad: the Fatemiyoun Brigade, the Zainbiyoun Brigade, and the units of the Morteza Ali movement belong to this category. Along with them, units from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, another branch of Khamenei’s proxy forces, have also fought in Syria. Iranian “volunteers”, who are called “defenders of the shrine”, have also been and are present alongside Syrian, Afghan, Pakistani and Iraqi mercenaries.

To add to the chaos in the country, Assad released more than 20,000 imprisoned Islamic “terrorists” to open a new front against the freedom-loving protesters. It was these freed terrorists who quickly participated in the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). At the same time, Assad promised the more than 1.5 million Kurds who had lost their Syrian citizenship that he would restore full citizenship to them. In this way, a part of the Syrian Kurds under the influence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose main base is in Turkey, entered the battle against the Syrian freedom groups.

But all these measures were unsuccessful in suppressing the Syrian people’s movement. In 2014, Tehran made contacts with Russia to push Vladimir Putin into war in Syria. These calls came to fruition and Putin assigned the Russian Air Force to suppress in Syria. The price of this service to Bashar al-Assad was a 45-year contract according to which Russia obtained an air-sea base on the Syrian coast of the Mediterranean and was able to expand its military presence to that strategic sea for the first time after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Putin used the same tactic in Syria that he used in Chechnya: bombing cities across the country. Thus, Aleppo, the second most populated city in Syria, like Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, became a mountain of rubble.

Gradually, “Syrianization” was formed as a political-historical concept. Destruction means widespread devastation in a country where half of its population has either become displaced and refugees or has become homeless within its own land. “Syrianization” means maintaining control of a part of the capital and fighting with dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of other armed groups across the country to formally recognize a regime that no longer exists. “Syrianization” also has another meaning: the division of two facts of a country into the sphere of influence of several foreign powers. Right now, part of Syria is controlled by Turkey, while the other part is controlled by the United States under the guise of its Kurdish allies. A third part is controlled by Russia and the Islamic Republic has the fourth part in the desert bordering Iraq. The fifth sector is also dominated by Druze armed forces with the help of Jordan Hashemi. Bashar al-Assad and what he calls himself the Syrian government are displaying their shadow legitimacy in a sixth section in Damascus.

Thus, the joint plan of Bashar Assad, the Baath Party, part of the Nasiri (Alawi) minority, Ayatollah Khamenei, Major General Qassem Soleimani, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are being destroyed. But another actor has played a role in this ominous show: the leadership of the Syrian people’s protest movement. This leadership was never able to present a clear strategy to gain power. This leadership lured the Western powers with mouth-watering promises and thought it was done taking pictures with the French president and receiving a message from the US secretary of state – endless seminars in more than 30 capitals, from Tokyo to Ottawa, where the real political work is done and took the cities and villages of Syria. A group of exiled figures who had been around Syria for years suddenly came under the global spotlight as the future leaders of Syria. Their work was consecutive interviews with Western media, often in suites of 5-star hotels in Paris, London, New York, etc. It is interesting here that many of the leaders of the Baathist regime, who were cut off from Bashar al-Assad, joined this shaved leadership in order to compensate for their lost political virginity and to take a share if there is a reconciliation.

“Syrianization” should be considered a new type of tragedy-comedy of human societies in which hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of idealistic, sincere and selfless people come to the field to overthrow an autocratic, and corrupt system, hoping to build a free and law-based society and justice. But, in the end, they are reduced to the level of a tool for the profit of the alleged leaders on the one hand and the battle of foreign powers on the other.

“Syrianization” could not have become a reality without Bashar al-Assad, Ali Khamenei, Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama and the ignorant or profit-seeking leaders of the popular movement. Today, Syria, this stateless land, is a breeding ground for the worst elements that threaten a modern society: various terrorists, looters, commercial and religious mafias and mercenaries. To rebuild this ruined country, more than three trillion dollars of capital is needed, a capital that will never be collected without the establishment of a government in its normal sense. In this way, Syria is faced with the question “came first the chicken or the egg”: capital comes first or the normal government?

Let’s go back to the propaganda of Khamenei and his accomplices about the “Syrianization” of Iran. At first glance, the presence of some agents of Syrianization, including Khamenei himself and his mentor, Putin, a part of the Revolutionary Guards and mercenaries of the Islamic Republic in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, makes the danger of Syrianizing Iran appear serious.

But several important factors, I think, protect Iran against the risk of becoming Syrian. The first factor is the deep roots of Iran as a nation. Before 1948, Syria never existed as an independent nation-state and was always a collection of ethnic, geographical and cultural entities within the framework of various empires from Chaldea and Assyria to Rome, Byzantium, Ottoman and finally, France. On the other hand, Iran has passed through the crucibles of the constitutional movement and has become familiar with the concept of freedom within the framework of the law during 150 years, although intermittently, before Ayatollah Khomeini took office. The role of the institution of the Kingdom of Iran in strengthening the national solidarity of Iranians cannot be ignored either.

Most importantly, the current movement of the Iranian people, unlike the protest movement of the Syrian people, which had a religious undertone – with the strong presence of the “Muslim Brotherhood” – does not have a religious or sectarian aspect, and is a movement that goes beyond religious, professional and ethnic concepts and demands a return to the path of constitutionalism. It means creating a society based on the law and serving the citizens. In recent months, the field leaders of this movement have displayed an encouraging maturity and political tact and have shown that, unlike the Syrian protesters, they are not waiting for a “green light” from Paris, London and Washington. Thus, those who want to help this movement must enter into the game with the conditions and regulations of this movement, not to impose their own conditions and regulations on it.

Today, Iran seeks to end the rule of Syria builders like Khamenei. Those who have played a role in Syrianizing Syria cannot scare us from becoming Syrian.

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The Qatar World Cup: Soccer upsets, politics, and sensitive situations

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Barely out of the starting blocks, the Qatar World Cup has already produced a fair share of upsets as well as politically and personally sensitive situations and incidents.

Qatar’s 2:0 loss to Ecuador in the tournament’s opening match will have reinforced critics’ conviction that the Gulf state should never have been awarded World Cup hosting rights, among other things, because of its alleged lack of a soccer legacy.

Leaving aside the merits of the allegation and Qatari disappointment, the jury remains out on what Qatar’s return on its massive investment in organising the World Cup will be regarding reputational capital.

For Qatar, the ultimate evaluation of the return will largely depend on how it manages the tournament and potential flare- and hick-ups as dissidents try to turn Iranian matches into venues of protest, activists seek to capitalise on the opportunity to campaign for their cause, and fans refuse to play to Qatari soft power objectives, let alone possible incidents of intoxication, rowdiness, and LGBT-related issues.

So far, the picture constitutes a mixed bag.

Addressing Iranian concerns, Qatar refused to accredit for the World Cup, Iran International, a Saudi-backed, London-based satellite television broadcaster, that the Islamic republic accuses of fomenting months-long anti-government protests that security forces have been unable to squash.

Similarly, to prevent matches from turning into platforms for protest, Qatar stopped Iranian fans from bringing Iran’s pre-revolutionary flag into the country’s first World Cup match against England.

The flag, dating from the time of the shah, toppled in the 1979 Islamic revolution, is viewed as a symbol of protest against Iran’s theocratic government.

That didn’t halt fans holding up signs in the stadium demanding freedom in Iran and pictures of demonstrators killed by security forces.

However, there was little Qatar could do when the Iranian national team refused to sing the country’s national anthem at the beginning of the game.

“I would like to express my condolences to all bereaved families in Iran. They should know that we are with them. And we support them. And we sympathize with them regarding the conditions,” the team’s captain, Ehsan Hajsafi, told journalists hours before the match.

While Qatar’s state-run domestic broadcaster avoided showing female supporters with their hair uncovered in the stadium, Iranian state television interrupted its live broadcast as the Iranian and Ecuadorian anthems were played.

For weeks, footballers have signalled support for the protesters by not celebrating Iranian League goals, wearing black wristbands, and expressing support for the Iranian people without mentioning the protests to evade government retaliation.

Nevertheless, current and former players have been questioned by authorities, detained, or charged with “acting against national security.”

The refusal to sing the national anthem and the team’s embarrassing 6:2 loss to England fed the Iranian government’s worst fear that the World Cup would turn out to be a global platform for dissent rather than a moment of unifying national celebration.

The national team was emboldened by their manager, Carlos Queiroz, who, breaking with FIFA’s fictional separation of politics and sport, insisted that “players are free to protest as they would if they were from any other country as long as it conforms with the World Cup regulations and is in the spirit of the game.”

Overall, Iran has lost in more ways than just on the pitch.

At the start of the year Iran, which sits across the Gulf, had hoped to attract World Cup tourists like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman, and proposed the crafting of a joint tourism plan with Qatar. Tehran even agreed to forgo the visa requirement for World Cup visitors.

That hope was dashed by the anti-government protests, the failure to revive the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, and Iran’s inability to complete necessary infrastructure on its Kish Island.

The match against England could prove to have been a cakewalk compared to potential friction when Iran meets the United States on the Qatari pitch on November 29 in what is likely to be one of, if not the most politically charged match of the World Cup.

Similarly, Arab fans, reflecting sentiments among some Qataris, made clear that the World Cup would not be a bridge-building event, at least not when it came to relations with Israel and Israelis.

Arabs largely refused to be interviewed by Israeli media. Footage circulating online showed two Saudi fans, a Qatari shopper, and three Lebanese fans walking away from Israeli reporters in a demonstration of the limitations of soccer as a vehicle to build bridges. In another incident, Palestinians chanted “go home” when approached by Israeli reporters.

Qatari media published some videos of sharp encounters between Arab fans, Qatari nationals, and visiting Israelis with the caption: “No to normalization.”

“Sure, most countries in the Arab world are heading towards normalisation – but that’s because most of them don’t have rulers who listen to their people,” said Saudi football fan and oil worker Khaled al-Omri, who travelled to Qatar to support the kingdom’s national team.

The fans’ refusal to engage with Israeli reporters dashed hopes that ten Israeli charter flights ferrying up to 20,000 fans from the Jewish state to the World Cup, the first ever between Tel Aviv and Doha, would herald a new milestone in the normalisation of Arab-Israeli relations following the 2020 establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.

Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, has made the conversion of informal ties into formal relations conditional on a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Under FIFA rules, Qatar was obliged to grant entry to fans irrespective of whether the Gulf state recognizes the country issuing a supporter’s passport.

In line with the rules, authorities allowed Israeli channels to broadcast from Doha, but unlike other major foreign networks did not provide them with a formal studio.

Protest was not the preserve of Iranians and pro-Palestinian Arabs. Prominent Qataris made statement of their own by wearing a pro-Palestinian armband at the Germany-Japan match after being told that German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser would sport a One Love pro-LGBGT band.

Ironically, Ms. Faeser was sitting in the stadium’s VIP section next to FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who had just banned players from wearing the One Love band on the pitch in support of LGBT rights.

In response, Germany’s players covered their mouths for the team photo before their opener against Japan.

Mr. Infantino, unmoved by Ms. Faeser’s gesture, apparently saw no contradiction between his ban and FIFA’s opening days later of disciplinary proceedings against Ecuador over homophobic chanting by their fans in the match against Qatar.

Meanwhile, the Qataris had likely forgotten their loss in the euphoria sparked by Saudi Arabia’s 2:1 defeat of favourite Argentina 2:1 the first of two initial World Cup upsets.

“Looking forward to the Japan-Saudi final,” quipped Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer after Japan, in a second soccer upset, beat Germany 2:1.

The New York Times noted in a tweet that the Saudi upset put Argentinian player Lionel Messi, widely viewed as one of soccer history’s best players, in “a strange position” given his agreement to promote Saudi tourism and potentially the kingdom’s joint bid together with Egypt and Greece for the hosting of the 2030 World Cup.

Mr. Messi would potentially be campaigning against his home country, with Argentina planning a rival joint bid with Uruguay, Paraguay, and Chile. So far, Spain, Portugal, and Ukraine are the only ones to announce their joint interest officially.

The tweet and a headline in The Athletic, a sports publication that was recently acquired by the Times that accused Mr. Messi of selling himself to the devil, sparked a furious tweet by Mohammed Alyahya, former editor-in-chief of Al Arabiya English.

Staggering racism. It implies Arabs are incompetent & can’t win. It accuses a Latino world hero of corruption. Messi is the greatest footballer today, wealthy & only concerned about legacy. But according to the NYT, he’s a venal traitor in a shady deal with rich Arabs. Shameful,” Mr. Alyahya said.

Contrasting the Saudi victory with the Iranian defeat, author Lee Smith opined:

“The people of the Middle East recognize a strong horse when they see one: That horse is clearly not Iran. By attempting to reenter the Iran deal, fill the regime’s war chests with billions of dollars, and legitimize its nuclear weapons program, the Biden administration is doing something even worse than backing sectarian tyrants who spread death and destruction. It’s backing losers.”

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