Turkey Playing The Referee: Disjointed Sports Entities In Aleppo Countryside
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
Mohamed Homs – Habba Shehadeh – Murad Abdul Jalil
Sports in the northern countryside of Aleppo, held by Turkish-backed Syrian opposition, is an example conveying the status of the service sector institutions in the region, the way they are organized and structured and how local efforts are being put into action, in addition to the extent to which the Turkish government is interfering to manage and direct these sectors.
Under the Syrian revolution flag, the activities of several sports institutions emerged since 2011. The revolution was the only common factor between all of them, for no unified sports bodies have been formed since then, counterbalancing the existing sports activities of the regime.
The first attempts to mobilize sports started with the efforts of the “Free Syrian Sports Association,” which was established in Cairo, Egypt in 2012, followed by the formation of several sports entities, the largest of which was the “Syrian Sports Authority.” It was formed in March 2014, as an independent organization called the “General Sports and Youth Authority.” Its activities have been determined through its loyalty to the Syrian Interim Government, in early May 2017.
Only the General Commission for Sports and Youth and the Sports Office affiliated to the Salvation Government, which dominated sports facilities in most of Idlib, remained as two active and influential sports entities.
On a smaller scale, sports in northern Aleppo countryside differ from its neighboring Idlib, in terms of training, organizers, subsidies and existing sports facilities.
The Turkish-backed local councils supervise the sports activity and manage the northern countryside of Aleppo, which is controlled by the National Army.
This file sheds light on the reality of sports in the northern countryside of Aleppo, and discusses the Turkish role in supporting and sponsoring this sector, and the challenges facing the formation of unified sports bodies amid the difficulty of acquiring international recognition for the championships and the clubs holding such events.
Support for juniors and organization attempts
Turkey puts its hand on the sports of Aleppo countryside
Each local council in Aleppo countryside controls the sports sector in the area it manages. Each council has its own sports office that manages sports affairs and existing or newly established facilities.
The mechanism of organization of tournaments, and football leagues in particular, in the northern countryside of Aleppo, are also run via these sports offices. These in turn coordinate with the Turkish Sports and Youth Directorates, which, according to Enab Baladi’s monitoring, have three directorates belonging to the states of Kilis, Gaziantep and Hatay.
According to Fares Derbala, director of the sports office in Azaz Local Council, “the area has witnessed the establishment of gyms and stadiums with international characteristics with Turkish financial and executive support. All the stadiums in Afrin, Azaz and al-Bab are now equipped with artificial grass, while stadiums in Marea and the area of al-Rai are being established. ”
General sports federation under Turkish supervision
The Turkish Ministry of Sports sponsors sports activities in the countryside of Aleppo through its sports delegates. The Kilis governorate center, which is affiliated with the Turkish Ministry of Sports, supervises sports in Azaz region, while Gaziantep governorate center supervises Al-Bab and Jarabulus regions, and Hatay governorate center is in charge of Afrin area and its surroundings.
During the past two months, the Turkish delegate responsible for the sports file has intensified his visits to the region and held meetings with athletes and councils, with the aim of forming a general sports federation in the countryside of Aleppo, which would supervise and organize all sports activities in the region (football, basketball, bodybuilding), said Derbala to Enab Baladi.
The Director of the Sports Office in Azaz added that each sports office in the region will nominate former local athletes, in order to hold a meeting later, hold elections and form the General Sports Federation.
The formation of the Federation aims to move sporting activities from individual and regional status (each region has its own sporting activity), to organize a unified sports body and to hold organized championships, which would be the starting point of external participation.
Derbala stressed that talks have been held with the Turkish side about the international recognition of the sports federation after its formation. Turkey responded by the need to implement the first step and organize the sports in one body. By then, it would be possible to talk about international recognition.
Focus on football and juniors
Turkish interest in sports in the region aims primarily to take advantage of the emerging sports experiences (children) and investing in them. Turkey has equipped schools with football and volleyball stadiums through the distribution of sports equipment, in addition to the formation of a junior football team in each school.
Derbala stressed on Turkey’s direction towards targeting juniors in order to form a sports base and training players in the future who can be invested in the sports field. He said that “it is a big project that started from younger age groups.”
This is clear especially through their interest in only football, the world’s most popular sport, and the neglect of other sporting activities, such as bodybuilding and athletics, according to Amar Kersho, head of the Federation of Bodybuilding and Physical Strength in the countryside of Aleppo.
Kersho added in an interview with Enab Baladi that a Turkish delegation visited the region months ago and met with football clubs, arguing that “the Turkish side is not aware of the existence of the bodybuilding federation and combat games, such as gymnastics, in the region.”
Kersho also stressed that he worked on forming a bodybuilding federation in the countryside of Aleppo and organized several championships. When asked about the possibilities that the Turks can afford to the federation, the answer was that there is no financial support, but rather support with prizes and supplies.
Turkish system to collect player data
The Turkish government has established a website to register players and clubs in the federation that it intends to establish. The website is linked to the Turkish electronic government system, according to a source in the Turkish Sports Office in the state of Kilis, who asked to remain anonymous for reasons related to the nature of his work.
The source added that the website’s mission is to register the personal and sports data of those joining the sports federation, including the sports the member is playing and the club he joined.
The source said that the website is not dedicated to football players only, but also includes the rest of sports, like athletics, combat sports, volleyball, tennis and others.
Each team, according to the source, will include its players’ lists on the registration website, which will allow athletes to participate in the joint tournaments that Turkey plans to hold with the Syrian clubs and teams within the federation. This identity also enables the players to participate in some international tournaments that Turkey holds.
Coordination “only” with councils
The Turkish government’s coordination in the field of sports in the countryside of Aleppo is limited to local councils, according to a source in the Turkish Sports Office in the state of Kilis, while there is no coordination with the General Commission for Sports and Youth, which is the most prominent sports body in the region.
At the same time, Turkey refuses to grant entry permits to Syrian athletes residing at home to participate in the open international championships that are held on its territory, the head of the Individual Games Office of the General Commission for Sports and Youth, Ahmad al-Sharm, informed Enab Baladi.
He added that the entry of the Syrian player to Turkey to participate in sporting events “is impossible,” pointing out that the Syrian athletes residing in Turkish territories can participate in these championships and some of them won medals and awards.
According to al-Sharm, the General Commission for Sports and Youth has tried several times to obtain approval for the participation of qualified teams in these championships, but to no avail. He clarified that there are efforts with the interim government to obtain those approvals.
General Commission for Sports and Youth: The most prominent sports entity in the countryside of Aleppo
The General Commission for Sports and Youth is an organization that sponsors the sports movement inside and outside Syria, since March 2014, in cooperation with its affiliated federations.
In accordance with the Rules of Procedure, of which Enab Baladi obtained a copy, the Commission is composed of the General Assembly, the 13-member Executive Office affiliated to it, as well as technical and executive committees (including 11 members) on the ground.
These committees are run by clubs affiliated to the Commission and sports tournaments, in cooperation with local councils and some Syrian organizations, such as the Civil Defense. The Commission has also previously cooperated with some Syrian radio stations, newspapers and websites.
The Commission had managed to collect about 42,000 members with the establishment of representation offices and entities in all the liberated areas, starting from Daraa reaching the countryside of Damascus, Homs, Hama, Idlib and Hama.
With the change of the political and military reality last year, and the Syrian regime’s regain of control over large areas, the number of members has shrunk to less than 10,000 today, with 16 sports federations joining the Commission, said the head of the General Commission for Sports and Youth, Mohammad Dhalal al-Moallem.
According to the Secretary of the General Commission for Sports and Youth, and the head of its organization office, Mayser Mahmoud, the nature of the coordination of the Commission in the countryside of Aleppo is that the local council in the region manages the organization of sports activity, in addition to the activation of various sports activities (football, combat sports, athletics).
Mahmoud pointed out that the organizational situation in the countryside of Aleppo is weak, while the sports establishment is trying to work and introduce training courses to develop the staff’s technical skills and their administrative skills, regarding management and division of work, in a way that makes the roles clear between the local councils and the “technical councils of the Commission.”
International recognition: Athletes’ dream constrained by political reality
Receiving international recognition is the dream of Syrian athletes and opposition sports bodies since it will open the doors to international competitions and tournaments from which they have been prevented because of their opposition to the Syrian regime and their refusal to compete for it.
But the question of international recognition is linked to the political reality of opposition institutions as a whole, said the Director of the General Commission for Sports and Youth, Mohammad Dhalal al-Moallem, to Enab Baladi. He added that “the question of international recognition is not only about sports, but includes all the affairs of the revolution.”
Al-Moallem added: “If we manage to get a seat in the Security Council or at the Arab League, we will be able to get full recognition in all areas.”
Will sports in Aleppo countryside manage to gain international recognition?
Director of the General Commission for Sports and Youth, Mohammad Dhalal al-Moallem, links the issue of international recognition of sports bodies in Aleppo countryside to the crisis of political recognition of the institutions represented by the opposition as a whole.
According to al-Moallem, this means that the recognition of the opposition is a very difficult matter. This view corresponds with the results of a poll conducted by Enab Baladi on its Facebook page.
Enab Baladi posed the following question: “Do you think that sports institutions in the Syrian opposition areas will manage to obtain international recognition. Why? Why not?”
72% of the respondents, who were more than 800, answered “No,” while 28% seemed more optimistic, and answered “Yes.”
The respondents’ answers were characterized by a sense of pessimism, with most users expressing distrust of any recognition of sports activities in opposition-controlled areas.
Facebook user Abu Ahmed Junaid wrote: “When they recognize the identification papers, such as passport and other, then they will recognize sports.” This view was supported by Facebook user, Othman Najjar who wrote: “They did not recognize universities, let alone sports institutions.”
Abu Mohammed, another Facebook user, considered that “the West did not intervene to stop the bombing that Syrians were subjected to, and did not recognize their humanity,” criticizing the “talk about sports recognition” at this time.
International participations: But
A number of athletes residing in areas controlled by Syrian opposition factions have participated in international competitions in recent years, but these events did not require representation at the national level, as is the case with international competitions, like the Asian Cups and European or the Mediterranean Games.
The General Commission for Sports and Youth contacted 22 sports federations and received a response from only two federations. The first is FIFA, which directly apologized for accepting the participation of the opposition sporting bodies, and the second is the Table Tennis Federation, which responded, in a personal manner, to the table tennis player, and the head of the body, Mohammad Dhalal al-Moallem.
Al-Moallem commented on the Table Tennis Federation response, saying: “They informed me that they can deal with me through the Syrian Federation of Table Tennis (the Syrian regime). Yet, when I told them that we could not deal with that federation as we are in conflict, they apologized and said we can only cooperate through the recognized Syrian Table Tennis Federation.”
Although the General Commission for Sports and Youth is today the most prominent sports institution in the northern countryside of Aleppo, the general sports scene, being divided, needs considerable support to rise.
According to al-Moallem, “the political reality that has been affected by the lack of support and institutional rejection has prevented the development of sports in the region.” He added that supporters of Syrian opposition institutions refused to allow the formation of an organized Syrian sport institution, focusing on supporting few local tournaments in the rural areas of Aleppo, under Turkish control only, after Turkey divided the region between the Hatay, Gaziantep and Urfa administrations.
He accused “all political opposition parties, from the opposition’s National Coalition to the Syrian interim government, of ignoring the creation of the institution and refusing to provide support for sports,” adding that “the whole issue revolves around influential figures.”
What is the role of the Olympic Committee?
Official sports representation of the Syrian opposition is limited to the “Syrian Olympic Committee” of the National Coalition of the Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which is concerned with the affairs of Syrian athletes at home and abroad, according to the vice chairman of the committee and head of the information office, Mudar al-Assaad.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, Al-Assaad said that the committee is seeking to consult with the “International Olympic Committee and some Arab and foreign friendly countries,” pointing out that there will be a meeting with FIFA during the coming period in order to support Syrian sports.
He added: “We are facing a fierce war from the Syrian regime, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, in order to marginalize our role and prevent us from participating in international tournaments. We are also facing a war from the regime’s agents, who are working to block our endeavor in the liberated north of Syria, in Turkey, or some Arab and foreign countries.”
Regarding the role of the committee in supporting sports in the northern countryside of Aleppo, al-Assaad clarified: “The organized sports activities in the liberated north of Afrin will start shortly after the completion of the organizational matters, like preparing forms and lists of all sport activities and sports clubs and all games.”
Nonetheless, al-Assaad considered that the best way to unify the sports work in the north of Syria, frame it and organize it properly is to assume responsibilities by all parties and “by keeping the ego away from the sports work.”
Top sports activities in Aleppo countryside
Football has received the greatest attention among the sports activities in the countryside of Aleppo, where several tournaments were organized for the local teams. The most important one was the “Martyrs of the Euphrates Shield” tournament, which was held in July 2017, with the participation of teams from the northern and eastern rural Aleppo, and organized by the club Dabiq al-Riyadi, in cooperation with the local council. This tournament was preceded by the Northern League in Dabiq, which was held in May of the same year.
In addition, the “North Cup” tournament was held in June 2018 in Sheikh Alwan stadium in the city of Al-Bab, east of Aleppo, with the participation of 12 sports clubs. This tournament was organized by the Football Federation affiliated to the General Commission for Sports and Youth.
Among other tournaments was the “Martyrs Cup,” known as the “Mara’a Football Tournament,” and held in August 2018, with the participation of 12 clubs. This tournament was jointly organized by the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU) and the General Commission for Sports and Youth.
Al-Mahaba tournament was held in the city of Suran in the northern countryside of Aleppo, in October 2018, with the participation of 12 sports clubs from the city and the surrounding villages. The tournament took place at the Suran Stadium, which was established by the Turkish government with “standard” specifications.
Also, a football tournament was held in the northern and eastern Aleppo countryside in honor of Abdul Basit al-Sarout on July 7, and was preceded by a match in Afrin in June.
School tournaments for teachers and students were held in the northern and eastern rural areas of Aleppo; the most recent of which were held in March.
Weight lifting and Bodybuilding
In March 2016, the General Commission for Sports and Youth established the Syrian Federation for Special Sports in Aleppo countryside, which holds weightlifting championships. The first of these was “Martyr Rajab Mustafa al-Badawi” in October 2017, in Atarib, west Aleppo.
On May 13, 2018, the “Ana Menkom” (I’m one of you) Weightlifting Championship was held in the western countryside of Aleppo, during which 20 contestants belonging to different ages participated. It was organized by the Syrian Federation for Special Sports in cooperation with “Contributors” Team, “the Civil Center” and Al-Amal Institution for the Disabled.
Last July, the first Powerlifting Championship was held in the city of Azaz, having 80 local players in different weight categories as participants.
The Bodybuilding and Powerlifting Federation supervised the championship, which included three attempts (squat, bench press, and deadlift), sponsored by the local council, and in coordination with sports offices in the region.
The sports activities involving combat games were limited to the category of “children and young people” and most of them were part of the “Syrian Sports Child;” the project which started in 2015 and went through three stages. The second was in early September 2016 and the third in June 2017, in the northern and western rural Aleppo, in cooperation with the “General Commission for Sports and Youth” and “Baytna Syria.”
It included four sports centers that brought together more than 300 boys and girls. It also covered several sports, most notably gymnastics, football, taekwondo, karate, wrestling, boxing, kickboxing and judo, being supervised and trained by a group of experienced Syrian athletes.
One of his most prominent activities was the “Reality Challenge,” which included karate training in the rubble in Atarib city, west of Aleppo, in November 2017. A judo tournament was held in the Atarib gym, in November 2017, which included kids, children and junior classes.
Volleyball, table tennis and chess
A table tennis tournament was held with the participation of educational complexes in the northern countryside of Aleppo, between December 19 and January 3.
The city of al-Bab, in east Aleppo, held the first table tennis tournament in the region, last June, with the participation of eight teams belonging to the city and the surrounding villages. It was dedicated to older participants (over 18 years).
In July 2018, the General Commission for Sports and Youth launched a taxonomic chess tournament in Atarib city in Aleppo western countryside, which included 12 clubs.
A chess tournament for school students was also held in Suran and its countryside on January 20.
On July 23, Anadan Sports Club, north of Aleppo, held a chess competition. Several chess tournaments were also held in Azaz, al-Ra’i and Akhtarin towns, under the supervision of the education departments in the region and the Directorate of Kilis Education Department.
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