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Goalkeeper turned rebel fighter dies in northwest Syria

Abdel-Basset al-Sarout (L), a Syrian goalkeeper turned rebel fighter, was a popular singer of protest songs from the central city of Homs who starred in an award-winning documentary about his country’s war.

Binnish, Syria | AFP |  A Syrian goalkeeper turned rebel fighter who starred in an award-winning documentary died Saturday of wounds sustained fighting regime forces in northwestern Syria, his faction said.

Abdel-Basset al-Sarout, 27, was among dozens of fighters killed since Thursday in clashes on the edges of the Idlib region.

Some 215 fighters from both sides have been killed in the fighting, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

That number includes 65 regime fighters, as well as 48 jihadists and allied rebels on Saturday alone.

The region, dominated by an alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, is supposed to be protected by a months-old buffer zone deal.

But it has come under deadly regime bombardment in recent weeks, sparking fears for its roughly three million residents.

Before Syria’s eight-year civil war, Sarout, from the central city of Homs, was a goalkeeper for the country’s youth football team.

When peaceful demonstrations broke out against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in 2011, he joined in and soon became a popular singer of protest songs.

Following a brutal government crackdown on the protests, he took up arms.

Sarout starred in the documentary “Return to Homs” by Syrian director Talal Derki, which tracked his evolution from protest leader to fighter, and won a top prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014.

Jameel al-Saleh, commander of the rebel faction Jaish al-Izza, announced Sarout’s death in a message on Twitter, describing him as a “martyr”.

Another of the group’s commanders, Mahmoud al-Mahmoud, also confirmed the fighter’s death.

“He was a well-mannered young man and one of the fiercest fighters I have known,” he told AFP.

He said the fighter had been wounded two days previously in the battle for Tal Maleh, a village in the north of Hama province.

– ‘Goalkeeper, bard’ and fighter –

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sarout was wounded in overnight battles Thursday to Friday while fighting in the ranks of Jaish al-Izza.

“He died of his wounds on Saturday,” said the head of the Britain-based monitor, Rami Abdel Rahman.

Sarout was evacuated from Homs in 2014 under a surrender deal with the regime to end a two-year siege of its historical centre, according to the Observatory.

His father and four of his brothers were killed during bombing and clashes in Homs, it said.

On Saturday, Syrian activists and opposition figures took to Twitter to mourn him.

“The goalkeeper of freedom, the icon of Homs, the bard of the squares, the unforgettable sound of the Syrian revolution has been martyred,” wrote researcher and opposition supporter Ahmad Abazeed.

Hadi al-Bahra, a member of the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission, posted: “He died hoping to realise the dreams of Syrians.”

Since 2011, the conflict has killed 370,000 people and displaced millions.

Today, Assad’s forces are in control of almost 60 percent of Syria, after a series of Russian-backed victories against rebels and jihadists.

A large northeastern swathe of the country remains in Kurdish hands, while the Idlib region is dominated by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance.

– ‘Totemic figure’ –

Syria analyst Shiraz Maher described Sarout as “a totemic figure within the revolution”.

“His trajectory reflects the many twists and turns of this constantly mutating conflict,” said the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation in London.

“The symbolism of his loss is huge. It’s another loss for the stalled and stunted revolutionaries of 2011,” he told AFP.

Almost half of the Idlib region’s residents have been displaced from other parts of the war-torn country, including under deals to hand back those areas to government control.

The region, also spanning slivers of neighbouring Latakia, Aleppo and Hama provinces, is nominally protected by a September buffer zone deal signed by Russia and rebel backer Turkey.

But the regime and their allies have upped their deadly bombardment of the region since late April, killing more than 330 civilians, according to the Observatory.

The violence has also forced more than 270,000 people to flee their homes and hit 24 health facilities, the United Nations says.

Late Thursday, HTS and rebel allies launched a counterattack against government forces in the area of Tal Maleh to the southwest of the Idlib region.

Analysts predict the regime will continue to chip away at the Idlib region, but say it is unlikely to unleash a major assault.

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