The death of Abdelbasset al-Sarout has elicited a great tide of grief in Syria which has been echoed and felt across the world. At his death, Sarout was 27 years old. He had fought against the regime of Bashar al-Assad for almost a decade, and had served as a symbol of defiance and hope for as long.
In his eight years of fighting, Sarout came to embody much of Syria’s revolution.
Though he was a thoroughgoing warrior by the time of his death, Sarout did not seek war. Instead, it interrupted his life and came to him.
A goalkeeper for his hometown football club in Homs, a boy and then a man who played for national youth teams, Sarout first attained a degree of prominence in protests against the Assad regime in Homs. Alongside other emerging figures of popular opposition such as Fadwa Souleimane, Sarout participated in protests against the state.
These protests quickly became less ad hoc and more organised. People leapt in the air and reeled with their arms linked. They carried banners, and chanted excitably; and upon the platform Sarout began to sing.
His songs of protest and demands for freedom became more powerful and more insistent as the protests did the same. Sarout sang for his city as well as his country. And when protests gave way to fighting as the state mounted a military response, Sarout soon found himself taking up arms.
What happened to Homs, and Sarout’s place in that conflict, is well told and well caught in the documentary Return to Homs. It follows Sarout and his fellow fighters as they crawl through ruined houses and skirt snipers’ alleys, passing through holes cut into the walls of buildings to avoid the dangers of the open street.
But more poignantly, the film also follows the path of the revolutionary figurehead as well as the fighter, including footage from the protests he led, much of which continues to have significant circulation among the Syrian diaspora.
The protests stir the heart, but other particularly moving scenes contain more private moments. They include one of Sarout slumping in a corridor, his back against a wall, experiencing exhaustion and a loss of heart. In another, Sarout tries to dig the grave of a friend, a task interrupted by the explosion of a shell nearby.
After a brutal siege in which much of Sarout’s family was killed and the neighbourhoods in which he grew up were flattened, Sarout became a fixture of the national opposition. He was evacuated from Homs to Idlib in a surrender deal by which the rebels gave up his city. Sarout was never able to return.
As time passed and the situation became more desperate, his course followed that of his country’s conflict. Sarout’s songs became more religious and laden with reference to martyrdom, their tone more in keeping with war than protest.
As the revolution weakened amid the rise of more extreme elements, Sarout trod a difficult path. With his increasingly religious tone, it was rumoured by his detractors that he had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group (IS) – something he later vociferously denied.
Nonetheless, Sarout’s consistent opposition to the Assad regime led to what some saw as an uneasy closeness with otherwise unsuitable groups who fought the regime, including Islamist and jihadist operations. His urging of continued fighting against the regime – notably urging the opening of new fronts to relieve rebel bastions under pressure – sat uneasily with some more willing to pause fighting and negotiate.
Living in violence took its toll. For years, Sarout evaded death. The regime attempted to end his life in Homs, and though it failed, its forces were able to kill many of his brothers and family members. Later, leading his own small band of rebels, Sarout was repeatedly in danger fighting both the regime and other armed groups, including the formerly al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, which is now part of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
Sarout was involved in all facets of Syria’s revolution. He hymned its original hopefulness and saw its slump into the mire of grinding urban warfare and infighting.
Like many rebels, Sarout had a complex but close relationship with Turkey, spending time there, leading protests and stirring continued support for Syria’s opposition before finally returning to his country to fight. His presence in Turkey did not diminish his magnetism, and his unannounced presence at protests drew rapture from crowds, something documented by Elizabeth Tsurkov of the Forum for Regional Thinking during her fieldwork in the country.
It was in a Turkish hospital where Sarout would die on June 8, 2019, of wounds sustained in battle against regime forces in northern Hama.
As he became more accustomed to violence, and more militarist in his thinking, Sarout represented the bitter experience gained by Syria’s revolutionaries as they comported themselves to the battlefield rather than the demonstration. In his growing religiosity, Sarout demonstrated how those amid the flames of conflict seek both solace and vengeance from a higher power.
Sarout believed in the hope of a Syria without the Assad dynasty, and determined to give his life to make that future possible. His story is that of Syria’s revolution in miniature; his death a symbol of the betrayal of that revolution.
Many Syrians, those within the country and abroad, see Sarout as a representative martyr: a golden youth whose life was interrupted by dreadful conflict. The outpouring of grief his death has inspired appears almost unprecedented. The tributes paid to Sarout do not fail to acknowledge his ideological movement. Instead, noting his alliances and his actions deepens the tragic aspects of his life, amid the wider tragedy which has befallen his country.
‘Some individuals celebrated as heroes make you doubt all stories of heroes in history books’, said Hassan Hassan, a Syrian writer and analyst. ‘Others, like … Sarout’, including his flaws, ‘make those stories highly plausible’, Hassan concluded.
A gilded youth now gone, Sarout stands for much of what his country has lost, and what, in a different light, its story can still, perhaps, contain.
A version of this piece was originally published at The New Arab.