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Whoever lifts the Arab Cup, the true winner is the Syrian Arab Republic

December 14, 2021 at 9:04 pm

Players line up for national anthems ahead of the FIFA Arab Cup 2021 quarter final football match between Morocco and Algeria at the Al-Thumama Stadium in the Qatari capital Doha on December 11, 2021 [KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images]

There are just four remaining countries in this year’s FIFA Arab Cup held in Qatar ahead of tomorrow’s semi-final fixtures (15 December, 2021): Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, and the host nation. They followed exciting quarter-final games which saw Qatar thrash UAE 5-0 and Algeria’s dramatic victory over rivals, Morocco, on penalties.

Qatar and Algeria’s encounter will be especially promising as both countries are reigning champions of the Asian and African continents, respectively, while North African football powerhouse, Egypt, is the most successful team on the continent. Tunisia has only won the Africa Cup of Nations once, when they hosted it, and also won the first-ever Arab Cup 58 years ago when the tournament started in 1963.

As the only remaining team to have won all their matches in the Arab Cup so far, Qatar has a good chance of being crowned champion, although an all-North African final will take place on 18 December, should Qatar fail to beat Algeria tomorrow. The date is also significant, as it is the Gulf State’s national day, commemorating the foundation of the modern state in 1878. If Qatar were to win the Arab Cup on such an occasion, it will further boost the country’s international prestige and soft power ahead of next year’s even bigger sporting event, the World Cup which it will also be hosting and, furthermore, it will be the first-ever to be held in the Arab world.

However, any political goals Qatar may have scored in this year’s Arab Cup may pale in comparison to the inclusion of a certain country’s team and its flag during the tournament’s opening ceremony – the Syrian Arab Republic.

Starting out losing to the UAE, the Syrian national side beat semi-finalists, Tunisia, 2-1 before unceremoniously exiting the group stages after suffering a defeat by Mauritania last week. Although not an impressive campaign, the very sight of the national flag as the event kicked off in Doha must have surely been a bitter pill to swallow for hosts Qatar, if not somewhat awkward.

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This is so because, despite Qatar spending billions (2013 estimates put the amount at $3 billion) on Syrian opposition factions and being at the forefront of the loose coalition of countries intent on isolating Damascus and toppling the government of President Bashar Al-Assad, the Syrian Arab Republic, though weakened from a decade of conflict and civil strife, has managed to pull through and survive, give or take the bastion of opposition in Idlib and the semi-autonomous Kurdish-dominated enclave in north-east and, unquestionably, with the support of Russia, Iran, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.

Among the recipients of Qatar’s financial support, has been Al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Nusra, since re-branded as Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) which dominates the Idlib stronghold and, according to a lawsuit filed in London in July, the Qatari state and the ruling Al-Thani family implicated at the very top, are alleged to have funnelled “hundreds of millions of dollars” to jihadists in Syria.

Of course, Qatar was not the only Gulf Arab state to become involved in Syria, as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE have all financed or armed opposition factions, sometimes rival ones to those backed by Qatar and close ally, Turkey.  Ultimately, this was detrimental to any prospects of a unified, coordinated opposition to Damascus, in addition to being one of the grievances by Riyadh that led to the Gulf diplomatic crisis of 2017, namely Qatar’s insistence in forging its own regional policy that conflicted with the Saudi-led bloc. Almost a year on, since last year’s Gulf Summit at Saudi’s Al-Ula that ended the rift with Doha, the 42nd summit currently being held in Riyadh will focus on several key issues, chief among them security concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme but also other regional developments, including the situation in Syria.

Discussions revolving around the latter come amid mounting speculation that Syria could well be re-admitted into the Arab League after it was expelled over its severe repression of the 2011 uprising and signs that other Arab states are considering normalising ties with Damascus.

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In October, Jordan’s King Abdullah II had a telephone conversation with Assad, the first such communication since the conflict began, while the UAE has been notable for resuming ties with Syria following its 2018 decision to reopen its embassy in Damascus and, more recently, Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan’s visit to the city last month. A move that the US found concerning. Despite this, his Qatar counterpart, Mohammed Al-Thani, called on a halt to normalisation with Assad and reiterated Doha’s position on Syria.

However, throughout the decade Qatar appears to have lost interest in Syria or, at least its enthusiasm, for supporting a “revolution” in the country instead of leaving crucial negotiations for a political solution going forward to be overseen by Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

The Syrian national team’s presence and, in particular, the country’s proud display as the Arab Cup kicked off in Doha, certainly divided opinions among Syrians themselves being condemned by activists and welcomed by pro-government supporters. According to one Syrian journalist and activist, Wafa Ali Mustafa, the inclusion of the Syrian anthem and the “Assad regime’s flag” meant that “Qatar was never really our ally” but acknowledged it was a clear indicator of the international rehabilitation of Syria’s Assad.

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It would not be far-fetched to expect to see Syria’s return to the Arab League in the year ahead as against the odds and the wave of political turmoil in the region spurred on by the Arab Spring, the Assad government has achieved a resounding political victory. It is not a matter of if but when the international community re-engages with Syria, this includes a reluctant Qatar. Earlier this month, it was reported that Syria will be chairing the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) Ministerial Council next year and will be hosting the Arab Energy Conference in 2024.

In some ways, Qatar’s hosting of the Arab Cup is a precursor to the more prestigious and important World Cup next year, which has already been tainted over the Gulf State’s own human rights record and allegations of bribery. By hosting “the greatest show on earth”, Doha hopes to improve its reputation, just as Russia sought to do the same in 2018.

Football in the modern age is unquestionably political, and Qatar’s unofficial recognition of the Syrian Arab Republic was grossly overlooked in the press, representing an own goal for Doha. In this sense, regardless of who wins the Arab Cup, for those paying attention, the real winner was Syria.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.