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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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Though a tournament without real meaning, the outcome was, nevertheless, very different from the April 2007 match in Aleppo. In Tehran, Turkey performed outstandingly, beating Syria 2-0, and emphatically putting seven and eight goals past Iran and Iraq respectively.9 As a demonstration of raw, hard power channelled through the football field, it was in symbolic terms quite awesome. In a sub-conscious way it helped to inflate Turkey’s sense of itself and its strength relative to those states around it, and hence the impact that it might have on a volatile and combustible region. It had been a dangerous exercise. In just two years, Syria and Turkey would come close to war as bilateral, political relations spiralled downwards and near out of control.

Another rare exception of the meeting of Syrian and Turkish footballers, this time in an institutionalized competitive setting, was the 1987 Mediterranean Games, hosted in the Alawite regime stronghold of Latakia (Wedeen 1999: 20–24). Syria won the gold medal for soccer in a tournament context in which France, Italy and Spain had invariably dominated. Turkey was one of the teams that Syria beat at the group stage of the competition, capitalizing fully on home advantage and winning narrowly 1-0. Turkey duly went out at the semi-final stage, 1-0 to France, before taking the third place play off after extra time against another of its perennial rivals, Greece, also 1-0.10 http://www.rssf.com/tablesa/army-six55.html, No score was recorded for the India-Turkey game.

The football competition at the Games took place between 15 and 25 September 1987.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Football_at_the_1987_Mediterranian_Games Since 1998 Syria and Turkey have witnessed the largely ad hoc arrangement of football matches between leading teams from neighbouring regions on either side of the border. In effect, they have fulfilled the same function as Aleppo 2007, but on a smaller though aggregated scale. These have taken place predominantly as a result of local initiatives. They have featured teams from Diyarbakır and Gaziantep on the Turkish side and Qamishli and Aleppo from Syria, the former two cities in both countries being demographically Kurdish.

This local and regional activity on the football front has reflected similar, bottom-up initiatives in such areas as cross-border trade and tourism.

Soccer is not the only sport to have flourished through such regional initiatives. Other sports events, notably in the realm of equestrian sports, have also proved to be popular. Here, neighbourly cooperation has been boosted by the role of the armed forces on both sides. For example, since the 1998 rapprochement, horsemen from the Turkish army have been invited to train in Syria, where the facilities have been described as ‘wonderful’. Support for equine excellence, with its martial tradition, was strongly associated with President Bashar al-Asad’s elder brother, Basil, who was assumed to be his father’s chosen successor until his untimely death in a car accident in 1994. Basil had been an enthusiastic horseman and had represented his country in international tournaments.

The New Stadium The Aleppo International Stadium was first conceived in 1980, when Syria was emerging from a long period of economic difficulties, compounded by political problems at home. Indeed, Syria was to experience further political convulsions between 1978 and 1983, before achieving a position from which to project itself as a confident and increasingly successful country. The stadium project was aimed at distilling this growing national self-confidence and giving a focal point for a new era. For instance, the stadium was planned with vehicle parking for more than 8,000 spaces in a country where car ownership was not widespread at that time.

The construction of the stadium was badged as an international-cum-national accomplishment. The architect for the new stadium was Stanley Karpiel from Poland, still then part of the Eastern Bloc and hence an ally of Damascus, assisted by his Syrian counterpart, Fawzi Khalefeh. The structural engineer was Stanley Kus. The plan was that the stadium should be opened in time for the 1987 Mediterranean Games, mentioned above. Had it been completed then, the stadium would have been a pioneering structure, in terms of both design and facilities. However, financing problems brought the building work to a prolonged standstill.

A new programme for construction was subsequently approved, and work recommenced in

2003. Syrians assume that work would not have been completed even after such a hiatus, without the active intervention of President Asad. In the end, the stadium was improbably estimated to have cost $30 million to build. With the Erdoğan visit looming, work on the stadium was eventually completed, 27 years after it first began.

The stadium itself is located in a larger recreational facility in Aleppo, the Basil al-Asad Sports Complex, in the southeastern approaches to the city in Salahaddin district. This district is a new suburb of Aleppo. It is populated mainly by Arab Sunnis from Idlib, a province of Syria that was at the forefront of the 2011/2012 anti-Asad rebellion, some of whom have recently moved out of more central areas in Aleppo, like Qalasah, and some having migrated from the countryside. Salahaddin was the scene of some of the most vigorous demonstrations and most intense fighting during the battle for Aleppo in July 2012. As with so much in Syria, politics is rarely far from the surface. The construction of the sports complex was on one level aimed at demonstrating that the regime was able to provide for the needs of the majority community, even though it had limited access to political power. On another level, the fact that the sports services concerned were delivered through the provision of a strong regime-family For further information regarding the size and design of the stadium see http://www.top40charts.info/?title=Aleppo_International_Stadium.

project underlined for the Sunnis of Aleppo just how dependent they were on the indulgence of the Asad clan.

The stadium occupies 3.5 hectares, out of the 33 hectare sports complex. It is state owned. The stadium is built on five levels, the first being the ground level, with the playing surface, the second comprising services and facilities, with three levels of seating beyond that.

The first level of seating holds 35,000 spectators and is the site of the VIP facilities, which have been decorated using traditional Oriental woodcraft. The stadium contains two electronic screens.

The close identification of the sports complex with the Asad family is typical of the colonization of apparently apolitical activities like physical exercise, and the effective projection of regime power in Syria. It reflects the rampant corporatism of the Syrian system.

Writing some six months after the Aleppo match, and focusing on the fortunes of the sport of rugby, a minority pastime to say the least in Syria, a New York Times article noted that a nascent rugby club had had to bow to demands for Syrian regime control in order to have a chance to build a popular playing base. ‘Not surprisingly,’ the journalist noted, ‘even sports are political in Syria, a Baathist state where the government strictly supervises every social organization’ (Cambanis 2004). Associating the ruling family with activities like sport, that tend to be favoured by the youth, is a device through which Arab regimes have attempted to galvanize the political support of younger people in societies where roughly half of the population is aged under 18. With President Asad in his early forties at the time of the Aleppo match, football would have been a recreation that the country’s political leadership would have identified as a way of reaching the country’s young.

The Teams The idea to celebrate the opening of the new stadium with Turkey presumably came from the Syrian side, as the hosts, and should therefore be regarded as a primarily ‘top down’ sporting event (Black and van der Westhuizen 2004b: 1,207). After all, as Robert Redeker (2008: 496) has witheringly noted, ‘Through sports, small countries try to appear to the world as greater and more powerful than they are in reality.’ The offer was made to Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdoğan, partly because of the impetus behind the strengthening of bilateral relations, and more specifically because it was common knowledge that he had played football to a good standard in his youth,12 and was a keen follower of the game (Tehran Times, 30 November 2009).13 It is not, however, clear which side suggested that it be an exclusively bilateral affair, although a single one-off event would presumably have been more attractive to the Syrian side, because it would have involved little of the pressures for reform that tend to characterize extended, high profile, multiple participation tournaments (Black 2004b: 1,209–1,210). Neither was it clear how the decision to bring together two club sides rather than the national teams of the respective countries was arrived at. The latter may have had a lot to do with the uneven world rankings of the two countries. While Turkey enjoyed an elevated 16th place in the FIFA Rankings in 2007, Syria’s standing was an altogether more modest 107th. Staging a successful game in the face of such a disparity would have involved a considerable reputational risk. Syria may have sustained another hammering on a par with the 1949 meeting of the two sides, at a time when Damascus would have been looking to present an image of parity. In a world where football is often a euphemism for the masculinized wielding of hard power, a defeat on any magnitude, and especially by a decisively Sunni state, could literally have contained domestic security implications.

Whatever the embarrassment at Syria’s recent modest footballing achievements, they did not spoil the celebratory idea. Erdoğan cheerfully agreed that the fixture should be played between the two countries’ leading club sides. The Turkish leader warmed to the proposition, He played for a second tier club, and aspired to move to Fenerbahçe, but his father discouraged such an ambition.

So much so that it seems that in order to survive politically under the Erdoğan government it is prudent for aspirant figures to discover connections to the game. A notable example is Ahmet Davutoğlu, Erdoğan’s foreign policy advisor, who was promoted to foreign minister in 2009. It is claimed that he is ‘a highly respected forward’, who used to play football with his students right up until he was appointed to the ministry.

suggesting that the side he is widely known to support, and with which he has considerable influence, Fenerbahçe, take part in the inaugural fixture. The personalized nature of the choices and the invitations indicated that this was at least as important to foster good relations between the respective leaders, as it was to forge close ties between the two countries.

Fenerbahçe Fenerbahçe is an Istanbul-based sports club, established in 1907 and known best for its soccer team. Istanbul is Erdoğan’s home city and the working class district of Kasımpaşa the place in which he grew up (although his family originally came from Rize, on the Black Sea). Apart from being the only one of the big three teams based in Istanbul to be located on the Asian side, Fenerbahçe, who play in blue and yellow and are known as the Canaries, do not apparently have any primordial associations.

It is doubtful that Erdoğan would have had to persuade the well-established and business savvy president of the club’s board, Aziz Yıldırım, to allow the team to take part in the game.

Aziz Yıldırım is a businessman who specializes in construction and military sales. He has supplied the Turkish military and is particularly well known for having worked as a contractor for NATO. He became chairman of the board of Fenerbahçe in 1998, at a time when Erdoğan was mayor of the Greater Istanbul Municipality, making them two ‘big beasts’ in the political jungle that is modern Istanbul. It is likely that Yıldırım would have gone to Syria interested in the military commercial opportunities there, especially given that he had the company of such an expert door-opener to the Syrian regime. With four good years between the match and the collapse in bilateral relations in 2011, it is possible that Yıldırım and his companies would have done good business in Syria, although this has yet to be demonstrated.

Hürriyet Daily News (2 September 2011) quotes Forbes magazine in Turkey as saying that the company that Aziz Yıldırım has a 93% stake in, Maktas Makine, has done some $650 million worth of business with Nato since its establishment in 1973.

Yıldırım took over as chairman of Fenerbahçe from the controversial Ali Şen, who was forced out of the game under a cloud of rumours suggesting mafia links, though Şen has never been prosecuted. After his ouster as head of the board, Şen also turned his hand to military sales, selling Russian carrier helicopters to the Turkish Gendarmerie. They subsequently acquired a reputation for unreliability and a further attempt to sell Russian attack helicopters to the Turkish army foundered.

Unlike his predecessor, Yıldırım was elected to serve for a number of two year terms, straddling the period when Erdoğan emerged as prime minister in 2003, and the match in Aleppo, an apparent testimony to the closeness of the relationship between the two men. The 52nd head of the sports club, Yıldırım also presided over an ambitious stadium-building project during his terms in office. Fenerbahçe undertook a far-reaching expansion of its home ground, turning it from a 30,000-seater venue into a 55,000 capacity stadium. This expansion resulted in its recognition of eligibility to host major EUFA matches in the future. During the year of the Aleppo fixture, Fenerbahçe announced that it had sold over 100,000 membership cards, as the popularity of football as a mass spectator sport continued its fan base expansion, replicating the increasingly lucrative nature of elite football in parts of Europe. By changing the structure of its finances, Yıldırım reduced his club’s dependence on media funding. Fenerbahçe would go on to win the national league in Turkey in the season of the Aleppo game, the fourth such success under Yıldırım’s stewardship.

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