June 20, 2018 / 12:21 PM / a month ago

In Damascus, World Cup loyalties muddled by war

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - In a Damascus cafe, some of the Syrians watching Russia play Egypt in the World Cup faced a dilemma: whether to support a fellow Arab nation or their government’s most powerful ally.

A woman holds the Russian flag as she watches the World Cup 2018 match between Egypt and Russia, in Damascus, Syria June 19, 2018. Picture taken June 19, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

“I am confused because I was supposed to support Egypt but because Russia supports us, I support Russia,” said Amin Maarouf, 62, as he watched Russia defeat Egypt 3-1 on Tuesday at a crowded cafe in a middle class Damascus neighborhood.

“If Egypt were playing against any other country I would support it. But when I had to choose, I chose Russia.”

People walk past Russian and Spanish flags in the old town of Damascus, Syria June 19, 2018. Picture taken June 19, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Seven years of conflict have muddled the loyalties of a Syrian nation fractured by a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, and driven millions abroad as refugees.

While Russia enjoys support among Syrians who back the government, President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents are rooting for any team that is playing against it or Iran, his other major military ally.

These are the first World Cup finals since Russia intervened in support of Assad in 2015, turning the tide of the war decisively in his favor. Russia is hosting the tournament.

Russian flags were being waved by fans watching Tuesday’s match at an open-air screen in a street in Damascus, where just last month the government and its allies crushed the last remaining rebel enclave.

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Still, not everyone was cheering for Russia. “I am supporting Egypt,” said Jubran Louis, 18. “It’s an Arab team, I have to support it.”

The Syrian national side did not make it to the tournament, but it made an unexpectedly strong showing in the qualifiers. This too was also a point of division among Syrians. While government supporters rallied behind the team, some Assad opponents identified it with the Syrian government.

Omar Fleihan, who has lived in Istanbul since leaving Syria in 2014, ultimately wants England to win the World Cup and was hoping Egypt would beat Russia on Tuesday.

“Yesterday they were supporting Russia in Damascus, and this isn’t something strange or new to them,” he said. “I certainly support anyone (playing) against Iran and Russia without exception - Arab or non-Arab”.

Reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Beirut bureau; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Alison Williams

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