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«Chapter 7 ‘Victory of Friendship’1?: Asad, Erdoğan and Football Diplomacy in Aleppo Philip Robins On 3 April 2007, Al-Ittihad of Aleppo, ...»

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Chapter 7

‘Victory of Friendship’1?: Asad, Erdoğan and Football Diplomacy in Aleppo

Philip Robins

On 3 April 2007, Al-Ittihad of Aleppo, arguably the top Syrian footballing club and

representing the country’s largest city, played a friendly game at home against Fenerbahçe, one

of the ‘big four’ leading teams in Turkey. The occasion was the inauguration of Syria’s new

international stadium, also known as the Olympic Stadium, the sort of big ticket engineering

investment beloved of aggrandizing, authoritarian rulers around the globe, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. The match was played in front of an animated capacity crowd of 75,000, with a further 10,000 reportedly left ticketless outside the ground, making it a genuinely mass public event. Playing the role of regal hosts in the VIP box that day was President Bashar al-Asad himself and his wife, Asma; their exclusive guests were the Turkish prime minister and well known Fenerbahçe supporter, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his wife, Emine. They formed an intimate foursome on the live TV transmission, which frequently cut away from the footballing action to show shots of the presiding dignitaries.

The fact that the game ended in a 2-2 draw, with Fenerbahçe equalizing two minutes from the end, and just three minutes after Al-Ittihad had taken the lead, emphasized that this was as much about diplomacy as it was about a competitive sporting contest. Abdul Aga opened the scoring for Al-Ittihad, Semih equalizing for Fenerbahçe. Dumito put the Syrian team in front, before Deniz tied the game.

The match represented a high watermark of the emerging friendship between the two countries and in particular the two leaders. After all, it was only as recently as October 1998 that the two states had come close to staging a different kind of fixture: that of a war over Damascus’ persistent support for the Kurdish insurgency movement based in Turkey, the PKK, notably through giving sanctuary in the Syrian capital to its leader, Abdullah Öcalan. With The headline in the official web site of Fenerbahçe Spor Kulübü, 3 April 2007.

Turkey threatening an invasion, Bashar al-Asad’s father and then president, Hafez al-Asad, had quickly extricated himself from that tightest of spots by expelling Öcalan. The 2007 Aleppo fixture, with its enthusiastic embrace at both the regime and mass levels, was symbolically important because it demonstrated how far bilateral relations had improved over the intervening nine years. In retrospect, less than four years before the onset of the ‘Arab Uprising’, in which Erdoğan cultivated the Syrian opposition, it may wellcome to be seen as the high point in bilateral relations during a golden but truncated period of inter-regime relations.

This chapter seeks to explore what the match in Aleppo tells us about Syrian-Turkish relations, and how the emerging relationship was used by both sides to consolidate their positions at home and to advance wider foreign policy goals. In doing so, it will mobilize the sort of evidence usually left untapped by studies that lean heavily in favour of ‘high politics’. It will take the fixture seriously as a valid aspect of cultural history in the modern Middle East. It will contextualize the game in terms of earlier sporting-cum-cultural events between the two countries. It will examine the protagonists’ involvement in the game itself.

This chapter will make four overall arguments. One, that the emerging relations between Syria and Turkey, though institutional and material in orientation, were, at least as importantly, a reflection of the close personal relations developed by the respective leaders. Two, the Aleppo match will be viewed not so much as an example of soccer diplomacy, as typified by the Turkish opening to Armenia in September 2008,2 but as an illustration of secondary diplomacy, that is to say the consolidation of a diplomatic opening already made through activity in a non-‘high politics’ realm, in this case functioning at the cultural-cum-sporting level. Three, it will point to the instrumental usage made of such an occasion by the respective regimes in order to mobilize political loyalty at home, with the need especially great in Under this initiative, President Abdullah Gül travelled to Yerevan for a World Cup qualification game, but used the occasion to help launch what was in the end an unsuccessful diplomatic opening in order to try to repair bilateral relations.

minoritarian-ruled Syria. Lastly, it will argue that in order to demonstrate publicly and unequivocally that the two countries were now in a state of bilateral amity, it was necessary to stage a unique and unrepeatable event symbolizing fraternity between the two sides at the highest of levels. Football was chosen because of its emergence as a mass sport, capable of reaching and mobilizing a non-elite audience and hence making a complementary statement beyond the exclusively leadership level.

Football and Social Research Until very recently, academic researchers in International Relations (Black 2004a),3 writing in European languages, have not taken sport very seriously either in the developing world in general, or the Middle East in particular. Consequently, there has been little reflection on football, either as cultural-cum-sporting history, or as a reflection of power dynamics on the international stage. This is surprising since the impact of sport on international politics is hardly new, as evidenced from the impact of the Olympic Movement, stretching back through the boycotts of Moscow and Los Angeles, to the 1936 Nazi Games in Berlin. The absence of academic writings has meant that much of the current, serious research-based commentaries on football have been written by journalists, mainly producing chronological accounts of events, teams and tournaments, though some of these have included issues of political salience.4 Recently, journalists like Franklin Foer (2005) and Steve Bloomfield (2010) have become more ambitious, seeking to use football to illustrate and explain wider truths. As far as the Middle East is concerned James Montague’s When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone (Montague 2008) was a trail blazer, especially in terms of its extensive regional coverage.

Montague’s work contains a series of country-specific essays, which, while certainly According to Black and van der Westhuizen this is for three main reasons: one, IR is still an American discipline, and the Americans are lukewarm about ‘soccer’; two, there is a strong sense that sport should operate in an autonomous sphere separate from the state; three, the field has been slow to appreciate the importance of football as ‘soft power’, that is to say, power that attracts. See Black and van der Westhuizen (2004a).

For an outstanding example of this approach, though not alas focused on the Middle East region, see Burns.

entertaining, do not add up to a coherent regional view. Veteran American journalist James Dorsey is arguably the region’s best-known contemporary blogger in English on football and politics,5 and is currently writing a book on the subject.

The lacuna as far as scholarly work on the Middle East is concerned is surprising, as there is authoritative work that can be applied from other historical and social settings to give shape to comparable experiences in the Middle East. Simon Martin’s (2004) work on football in Fascist Italy in the 1920s and 1930s has much insight to give to the Syrian case, especially as far as football and Ba’thism are concerned. The Fascist characteristics of Ba’thism are neither new nor negligible, from corporatism, through the deployment of violence for domestic political purposes to paramilitary style intimidation, especially against the Left. More specific areas of comparison cover as wide an agenda as international prestige,6 the role of the leader, and stadium architecture as an expression of regime values, all of which again have salience in the Syrian Baathist case.

Writing about the impact that football had on the standing of Fascist regimes, Martin (2004: 12) points out that in the Italian case ‘the ultimate rationale behind the regime’s takeover of sport and its restructuring of calcio [football]’ was ‘the acquisition of international respect from sporting success...’ He further makes use of Lanfranchi and Taylor (2001), who have identified how ‘international football was used to symbolize and commemorate international friendships and diplomatic alliances’ (Martin 2004: 176).7 This evaluation is strongly evocative of the concept of Omni-balancing, whereby external alliance-building is used instrumentally by a regime at home, as it seeks to secure its precarious legitimacy. These ideas cut straight to the See http://mideastsoccer.blogspot Allison and Monnington, (2002) refer to ‘sport’ as being ‘a natural source of prestige’.

Lanfranchi, P & Taylor, M (Eds), Moving with the Ball. The Migration of Professional Footballers’ (Berg, Oxford, 2001) cited in Martin op. cit.

quick in describing the aim and output of the commemorative game in Aleppo in 2007, a context, which is made more acute by the minoritarian nature of the regime in power.

As football became more successful in inter-war Italy, so Mussolini, the Italian dictator, became increasingly inclined to associate himself with the sport. This included sending a signed picture to every member of the squad (Martin 2004: 175). Bloomfield observes the same phenomenon at play in relation to Egypt. In a passage that could easily have been written of the Asad regime, Bloomfield underlines the extent to which Mubarak attempted to exploit football for his narrow political interests. He quotes the Egyptian journalist, Walid al-Hosseiny, as saying that: ‘The political regime uses football to promote itself … He [Mubarak] is trying to show that he is with the people. It’s a constant message’ (Bloomfield 2010: 29).

In more specific ways the parallels between inter-war Italy and contemporary Ba' thism are especially relevant. The importance of massive stadia, ‘which symbolized the regime’s national campaign to regenerate bodies and buildings in the former,’ (Martin 2004: 9) can be heard to echo in the construction and unveiling of the Olympic Stadium.

Backdrop to Relations One reason why the Aleppo match was so eye-catching was the paucity of cultural and sporting relations between Syria and Turkey in the past. Apart from competitive football matches in 1949 and 1987 and a ‘friendly’ tournament in 1955, they were just as thin in the sporting sphere as they had been in the political domain. The absence of a relationship at the level of sport was just one more example where ties between neighbours had been dominated by divisive regime politics. The realities of this were that bilateral relations had failed to ‘thicken up’ beyond the formal level of relations over the six decades or so of a generally uneasy independent coexistence.

To some extent this meagre experience reflected a lack of institutionalization in multinational sporting relations, as a significant time lag separated an international sporting sphere created by the developed world – which stretched back to the rebirth of the Olympic movement in 1896 and the first soccer World Cup in 1930 – and the sporadic participation of newly decolonized states, where that sovereign existence was still being negotiated, let alone consolidated. So, for example, in spite of the fact that the Turkish Football Association (TFA) was set up in 1923, a nationwide football league and cup competition were not established in Turkey until 1959 and 1962 respectively.

A second reason for the past absence of regular sporting interaction between Syria and Turkey was geo-institutional. Kemalist Turkey, insisting on the primacy of its European identity, had got its way in the corridors of the governing body of football, as so often elsewhere, and had consequently been admitted to the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) in 1962. Syria, by contrast, unambiguously located in the Asian landmass, and selfidentifying with a post-colonial, Arab group identity, was uninterested in the European ‘other’, and opted to be admitted into the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). This meant that the two countries and their leading teams neither routinely played one another in the intra-federation tournaments that were haphazardly emerging at the time, nor in qualifying fixtures to generate the country line-up of successive World Cup tournaments. The 20 November 1949 World Cup qualifier, Syria’s first ever official international, and which Turkey won seven goals to nil, therefore remains an exception, an anachronism from a pre-geo-institutional age.8 A rare exception to this structural, sporting separation occurred in May and June 1955, when a six-nation army football tournament was held in Tehran, involving India, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Turkey, as well as the hosts. The fact that it was an army tournament spoke volumes of a securitized region where state consolidation was brittle but where military power was advancing rapidly, and was deemed a more worthy representation of an independent nation.

The composition of the tournament was, on the face of it, surprising, featuring as it did India In spite of winning the qualifier in the end the Turkish team did not take part in the 1950 World Cup, owing to financial problems. Turkey’s first World Cup appearance therefore would only come in the 1954 World Cup, in Switzerland.

and Syria, which were leaning towards the Soviet camp, and Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, all of which were firmly in the pro-Western political orbit. Indeed, Iraq, Iran and Turkey were at the time actively working for the creation of a pro-Western defence body, which, in its final organizational iteration, would come to be known as the Baghdad Pact toward which Turkey and Syria would line up on opposite sides and nearly come to blows.

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