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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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In spite of the longevity of his success, Yıldırım’s demise, when it came, was swift. He was arrested in July 2011 on suspicion of match fixing during his time with Fenerbahçe, and quickly forced to resign from his post, pending an official investigation. Rumours abounded that the match fixing allegations were just an excuse for a more political set of motives.

Yıldırım, himself, alleged an attempted Islamist takeover of the club, pointing his finger at Turkey’s Gülen Movement. Other rumours implied that his business dealings had suddenly become an embarrassment to Erdoğan.

Al-Ittihad Al-Ittihad, meaning ‘The Union’ in English, is not as long established a club as Fenerbahçe,

owing its origins to the amalgamation of three local sides on 20 January 1949. The teams were:

Usud al-Shahba (Lions of Shahba); Al-Janah (The Wing), and Al-Najma (The Star). They were joined together under the new name of ‘The Cultural Ahli (National) Club of Aleppo’ on 24 September 1953, reflecting the importance of nationalism, in the new era of decolonisation in the Middle East. The club remained constituted as such until the early days of the first Asad regime. It was 1972 when the club’s name was changed to the present one, a result of a decision by the new Syrian regime, which had launched its own Ba’thist ‘Correctionist Movement’ (Chappell, 2000: 38).15 The name change expressed the sentiments of the then new Asad regime to transform a country riddled over three decades by fractious divisions into a more united and hence stable country. It also reflected the sensitivities of an Alawite minorityled regime,16 keen to soften the minority-majority frictions in the country. Interestingly, a total of nine Arab states currently have leading football teams called Al-Ittihad or some variant, such is the preoccupation and indeed precariousness of national unity in many Middle Eastern countries, and its consequent aspiration. The same is even the case in Israel with Ittihad Bnai Sakhnin, a club that has pioneered Arabs and Jews playing in ‘union’ together, and therefore has similar social-cum-political considerations.

Al-Ittihad has a reputation for being Syria’s most popular team, and most of its home games are sell-outs. Its greatest achievement came in 2010, when it won the AFC Champions Cup, the AFC equivalent of the EUFA Champions’ League. Such was the prestige of this The intervention of the state either to nationalise or to insist on the changing of a club name in order to emphasise some aspect of regime values is not unusual or new. In 1976, for example, the Marxist government in Ethiopia forced all of the country’s sports clubs to change their names to reflect the centrality of the armed services, the security services or the trade unions. See Chappell (2000) The Alawite minority in Syria comprises about 11% of the population, although the ‘coalition of power’ in Syria consists of other groups as well.

achievement that President Asad inserted himself into the celebrations, personally greeting the team upon its return to the club premises in Aleppo. The gauche intrusion of the Asad family into the celebrations of Al-Ittihad was reminiscent of attempts by the Mubarak family to associate itself with the country’s national team during the qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa (Bloomfield 2010: 37–44). Al-Ittihad’s success came under the chairmanship of one of Syria’s and the club’s best known former players, Muhammad Nassar al-Afash, an attacking midfield player, who returned to Aleppo following a career in Europe in 2004.

The Game When they arrived at Aleppo airport, members of the Fenerbahçe team were mobbed by a Syrian crowd, which delayed their entry into the city by some 90 minutes. With its old trading connections into Anatolia and its cosmopolitan outlook, it is likely that the Turkish party received a more adulatory welcome than would have been the case if the match had been played in the Syrian capital. By the same token, it suggested some of Asad’s calculations in bringing the Turkish team to Aleppo, in the hope that part of its popularity would rub off on a regime never closely associated with the city.

In the course of their welcome, the Fenerbahçe players distributed leaflets to the Syrian fans. The leaflets said: ‘Hello after 56 years’, an erroneous reference to the ‘fact’ that the two countries had not played each other at soccer for that length of time (www.free-syria.com 3 April 2007). In spite of the long bilateral drought in high-level soccer fixtures, the greetings were mutually warm. There was a carnival atmosphere in the ground prior to kick-off. The stadium was adorned with Turkish and Syrian flags, and yellow and blue balloons, in honour of Fenerbahçe. Asad and Erdoğan marked the beginning of sporting activities in the ground by having a kick around, using balls made especially for the occasion. In an eye-catching piece of post-sovereignty gesture politics, Asad told journalists that he intended to support Fenerbahçe, while Erdoğan, returning the compliment, declared that he would cheer for Al-Ittihad (Lawson 2009: 196). Aziz Yıldırım presented both leaders with Fenerbahçe football shirts with their names inscribed on the back. The transliteration on President Asad’s shirt left something to be desired, as it read in Latin characters: ‘Basher [sic] al-Assad [sic].’ This may have reflected the relatively few Arabic speakers among the Turkish elite. With the preliminaries almost complete, the Turkish players threw flowers to the home fans (Fenerbahçe website, 2007).

The game was relayed live to a television audience in both Syria and Turkey. In addition to the local fans, a large number of people from Turkey also made the journey to attend the game. In order to facilitate this, the Damascus government waived the visa requirements, normally required of such visitors. Those Turks living in the southeastern province of Hatay, overwhelmingly Arabs and Turks by ethnic background, were not even required to have passports in order to see the game, being permitted to cross the border without any papers. Such a generalized visa waiver proved to be a harbinger of policy change. Two years later, Ankara had formed a visa free zone with its immediate Arab neighbours, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, to the instant benefit of trade and touristic ties.

The obligatory political business session was set aside for formal talks during the day between Asad and Erdoğan prior to the game. A combination of the extravagant welcome and the bilateral business talks meant that the match did not kick-off until 10.15 pm local time, the game having been scheduled to start at 7.45pm, local time. In the end, the game did not finish until after midnight.

What were the sentiments and calculations that ran through the minds of the two protagonists, as they watched the game being played? Narrowly speaking, Asad had succeeded in rescuing a ‘White Elephant’ project, turning the stadium saga from a source of embarrassment into a triumph and had finally passed the ‘competency test’ as far as the eventual execution of the project was concerned (Black 2004b: 1,209). Erdoğan was presumably happy to be feted as the sole guest of honour, emphasizing the growing dependency of Syria, an economically ailing country of some twenty-five million, on a much more powerful neighbour, Turkey, of around seventy-five million strong. Unlike his strongly pro-Western, Kemalist predecessors, Erdoğan was at ease in the Muslim Middle East; he was happy to develop a special, personalized relationship with the region’s leaders, and with its three neighbouring countries in particular.

Asad also must have felt that he had a bigger, strategic success within his grasp, at a time when the ‘we feeling’ of such an event, relatively speaking, was at its most intense (Black 2004b: 1,205).

He could not resist the temptation of ‘the “signalling impulse”’ (Black 2010c:

262). In this case, he was signalling that the lion had tamed the rising regional power to its northwest and that he had done so on behalf of all of the Arabs. From now onwards, he must have thought, a domesticated Erdoğan would be a resource to be deployed to the benefit of the regime in Damascus, a diplomatic ‘play’ worthy of his father.

At the end of the game, the referee took the match balls up to the VIP box in order to be autographed by the two leaders. Then the players from both sides were officially introduced not only to Asad and Erdoğan, but also to their wives. The consorts could not have struck a more contrasting pose. Asma al-Asad, a secular Sunni Arab, looked strikingly stylish and modern in a sharp, white overcoat. Emine Erdoğan, ironically also an Arab Sunni, though from eastern Turkey, struck a very different pose, as always conservative in her appearance, as befitting the wife of an Islamist politician, albeit a moderate one. She wore her usual ‘uniform’ of a dowdy headscarf and dull, loose-fitting over-garment. Though lacking the fashion consciousness of her counterpart, for the predominantly male spectators in Aleppo on that night it may well have been Emine Erdoğan that made the most favourable impression with her example of reassuring modesty. In spite of such differences in appearance and age (Asad is just over 11 years younger than Erdoğan), it was asserted that the families of the two leaders were ‘fond of each other’ (Shadid 2011).

The Aftermath Damascus was obviously happy with the inaugural match in Aleppo, and the effect it had had in fostering the courtship with Ankara. Within a year, Syria had decided to repeat its success, albeit in a slightly altered form. The Asad regime used the social-cum-cultural event of the inauguration of Damascus as the 2008 UNESCO Capital of Arab Culture for another celebration, comparable to that held in 2007. On this occasion, the guest list was expanded to include the Qatari leader, Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and Amr Moussa, the Egyptian secretary-general of the Arab League. Representing Turkey was its president, Abdullah Gül, the second most senior figure in the ruling Justice and Development Party to Erdoğan. Though Gül had to share the billing, in many ways it was more flattering for a Turk to be one of three guests at a specifically Arab cultural event, especially one involving the historic, Sunni city of Damascus. But of course, in neither his populist appeal to the electorate, nor in his personal magnetism, was Gül the equal of Erdoğan, and could not begin to rival him in terms of star quality.

Having held two iconic cultural events, and having publicly flattered the Turkish leadership at both, President Asad could be forgiven for thinking that bilateral relations had now been fully underpinned through gestures of nationwide symbolism. If it is true that he thought that he would now have Erdoğan and Gül ‘in his pocket’, Asad failed to imagine the gravity of the events that the relationship would soon be obliged to face. The unrest of the Arab Spring in Syria from March 2011 onwards, and the subsequent loss of thousands of Syrian lives at the hands of the security forces, proved to be events that football matches and personalized diplomacy would be insufficiently sturdy to resist, in spite of the original expectations of both leaderships.

Conclusion This chapter set out to demonstrate the importance of the cultural and sporting spheres of national life in consolidating inter-state political relations, especially in a less developed world context. It did so by examining a single, strong case study: the football friendly in Aleppo in 2007, between the leading soccer sides in Syria and Turkey. Though the previous nine years had already seen the rapid emergence of cordial relations between the two countries, both leaders felt the desire to establish close personal ties in order to complement institutional and commercial ties. And they wanted to stage a spectacular event of cultural significance in order to mark the moment. In both cases, they felt that as a result an insider relationship had been created that would generate special benefits over the long term. But the closeness of the relationship proved unable to withstand the pressures that would mount as a result of the Arab Awakening. Such circumstances simply made the expectations greater, and hence the disappointments more intense.

More broadly, the chapter explored identity politics in the foreign policies of both Syria and Turkey. Such a study further underlines the importance of Omni-balancing in the field of Foreign Policy Analysis, especially in this case on the part of the Syrian regime. Conscious of its own minority status in a country where Sunni Muslims are demographically dominant, the Asad regime sought to mobilize the rising leadership elite of the equally dominant Sunni majority in neighbouring Turkey, precisely to counter the sectarian pressures for change at home. In retrospect it was an audacious gamble. The spectacular nature of its ultimate failure left the regime with little but nakedly hard power to fall back on. The time for friendship through sports was over.

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