March 27, 2020

FIFA’s visit to Damascus is a betrayal of all the football players who have been killed, detained, and tortured by Assad's regime

We wrote to FIFA to express our deep concern about its visit to Damascus in December 2019

Dear Gianni Infantino,

We are writing to express our deep concern about FIFA’s recent visit to Damascus in December 2019. The Syrian regime’s grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian laws continue to this day. They include systemic violence against Syrian football players, exploiting the Syrian team for propaganda purposes, and the use of football stadiums to launch attacks against civilians; all in clear contradiction of FIFA’s statutes against political interference and its own Human Rights Policy.

While your delegation visited Damascus, the Syrian regime was committing mass atrocities only 240 kilometres away in the province of Idlib in northwest Syria. The Syrian regime alongside its Russian ally has deliberately targeted schools, hospitals, and displacement camps in Idlib, forcing over a million people to flee for their lives since 1 December according to the UN, 60% of whom are children.

Not only has FIFA’s visit emboldened the Syrian regime to further use football as a tool of oppression and propaganda, it is a way to legitimise Bashar al-Assad’s war crimes and is a betrayal of the dozens of football players who have been killed, detained, and tortured by the regime just for daring to oppose it.

FIFA’s Human Rights Policy states that the organisation “will strive to go beyond its responsibility to respect human rights by taking measures to promote the protection of human rights and positively contribute to their enjoyment”. Yet the statement issued following the visit to Damascus vaguely cites “considerable challenges” and falsely states that the impact of the armed conflict has been reduced. What measures has FIFA taken to protect human rights in Syria? We believe the public, especially the hundreds of thousands of Syrian football lovers around the world who are excluded from enjoying the beautiful game, should be better informed.

Many organisations and governments including the European Union, the United States, and Canada have refused to restore normal relationships with the Assad regime due to its massive and continuing human rights abuses. If FIFA’s human rights policies are to mean anything at all, they should prevent any partnership with a regime involved in mass atrocities and with a track record of targeting footballers and using football as a tool for propaganda. We have enclosed below further information on the Syrian regime’s violations of FIFA’s Human Rights Policy, and we look forward to your response.

We request that you:

  • Outline the processes which led to the decision for FIFA to send a delegation to Syria, despite the clear evidence that the Syrian regime is in breach of FIFA’s human rights policies and statutes against political interference.
  • Provide a response to the evidence of football-related human rights abuses outlined in this document.

We partner with a number of Syrian human rights organisations that monitor the abuses highlighted in this letter. We will keep them informed of your response.

A copy of this letter is also being sent to all members of the FIFA Human Rights Advisory Board, and a public version of this letter will also be made available to our supporters.


The Syria Campaign

Further information on the Syrian regime’s violations of FIFA’s Human Rights Policy

Violence against players

Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria has torn apart a generation of players. During the 2019 Asian Cup there were 15 players missing from the pitch that Assad’s regime had murdered for defying it, and seven players were being held in detention. The 22 men were all targeted by the regime following the 2011 uprising, picked out for their celebrity and opposition to Assad.

Furthermore, a 2017 ESPN investigation found that the Syrian government had shot, bombed or tortured to death at least 38 players from the top two divisions of the Syrian professional leagues and dozens more from lower divisions. Thousands more Syrian footballers are living as refugees. Although extremist groups like ISIS have killed football players on a smaller scale the Syrian Network for Human Rights concluded that Assad’s government has “used athletes and sporting activities to support … its brutal oppressive practices.”

Football players have been among the most prominent victims of Assad’s brutality. One of those killed, Jihad Qassab, played in the Syrian Premier League for over a decade. Qassab was arrested on 19 August 2014 and never stood trial, but his family and friends believe he was taken to Sednaya Military Prison, which Amnesty International has called “a human slaughterhouse” and where up to 13,000 Syrians were subjected to a policy of “extermination”. Sednaya contains an underground execution chamber consisting of two platforms and dozens of nooses. In September 2016, more than two years after Qassab disappeared, it was announced that he was dead. There were no other details.

Military use of football stadiums and the use of football for propaganda

Furthermore, football stadiums in Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, and Homs have been used as detention facilities and as military bases to store military equipment and to launch attacks on civilians, according to former players, human rights monitors, and videos taken by activists. And Assad has used the national team’s popularity to bolster his own political image. From the beginning of the war, according to players interviewed for ESPN, teams were forced to march in support of Assad, sometimes carrying banners and wearing T-shirts with the president’s image.

FIFA’s rules prohibit political interference in matters related to soccer and there is precedent for FIFA to act against the Assad regime. It has cited its rules more than 20 times over the past decade to suspend countries from international play and Mark Afeeva, a London-based sports attorney cited in the ESPN investigation, said the evidence against Syria far surpasses other cases, including Nigeria, that have led FIFA to act.

FIFA’s inaction since 2015

In 2015, prior to Russia hosting the 2018 World Cup, FIFA was presented with evidence of Syria violating FIFA’s rules prohibiting political interference in matters related to soccer in a 20-page document titled “War Crimes against Syrian Football Players”. Shamefully FIFA did not act. Now that FIFA’s World Cup in Russia is complete, we hope it will be brave enough to take a more decisive stand against the Russian-backed Assad dictatorship, so not to mar the beautiful game in further bloodshed.

Some of the players missing from the 2019 Asian Cup:

Loai Omar, tortured to death:

Tariq Abdulhaq, still in regime detention:

Ahmad Al Ayeeq, still in regime detention:

Mohammed Sulaiman, still in regime detention:

Housin Sebeei, tortured to death:

Iyad Qwedeer, tortured to death:

Amer Haj Hashim, still in regime detention:

Jihad Qassab, tortured to death: