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Could a Syrian war criminal be attending Paris Olympics?

July 7, 2024

Syrian activists are trying to stop a possible war criminal from back home from attending the Paris Olympics. It’s a lot harder to do than one might expect.

https://p.dw.com/p/4hufx
Police officers patrol in front of the Eiffel Tower, which shows the Olympic rings, in Paris in June 2024.
Even at the Paris 2024 Olympics, sport and politics will continue to collide Image: Takuya Matsumoto/AP Photo/picture alliance

Last August, a Syrian man posted a picture of himself on Facebook. It showed him standing somewhat awkwardly, unsmiling, in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Omar al-Aroub's friends, family and colleagues probably wouldn't have been surprised to see the photo. Al-Aroub is the head of Syria's national Paralympics Committee, and he was in the French capital for a related meeting in the summer of 2023.

But a number of Syrian opposition journalists and activists were shocked. That's because al-Aroub is close to the authoritarian Syrian regime headed by Bashar Assad. The Syrian dictator is accused of committing multiple war crimes, including chemical weapons attacks, against his own people over the course of the country's 13-year civil war.

Al-Aroub is known to be a senior member of the so-called Baath Brigades, a militia affiliated with the Assad government. Before that, he was a leader of the National Union of Syrian Students, or NUSS, which is also linked to the Assad regime.

'Ordered violent crackdowns'

Al-Aroub drew the attention of the London-based activist group Syrian British Consortium (SBC) when it was recently investigating possible war crimes committed by NUSS during anti-government protests between 2011 and 2013.

The yearlong investigation, published mid-June, confirmed "a pattern of systematic clampdowns on university students, including detentions and torture on campus," Yasmine Nahlawi, a lead SBC investigator, told DW.

"What we know is that he [al-Aroub] recruited other students to inform on protesters and to participate in the violent crackdown against protests. We know he armed them with batons and there were reports he also distributed firearms," Nahlawi said.

"We have testimony he gave orders to use as much violence as needed, short of death. He instructed people to throw regime-opposing students out of the windows of student residences and ordered [his] students to beat men on their private parts so hard they would become infertile."

Now Nahlawi and her colleagues are worried that al-Aroub will return to Europe to attend the Paris Olympics, which start in late July, or the Paris Paralympics in late August.

With the help of a London-based advocacy organization, The Syria Campaign, they have started a petition calling for organizers to ban al-Aroub from the Paris Olympics. 

Al-Aroub has been to the Olympics before. He was at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics because, unlike other Syrian leaders, he has no warrants outstanding against him nor is he on any sanctions lists. 

Who is responsible?

Three people are likely to compete under the Syrian flag at the Paris Olympics although it's not yet known how many will take part in the Paralympics because competitions are still ongoing.

But it's not the Syrian team that the activists in Europe have a problem with, Nahlawi stressed. Rather, it's the way the Syrian government uses the athletes to polish its image.

Man Asaad of Syria competes in the men's 109kg weightlifting event, at the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Syrian athletes will compete in in weightlifting, equestrian sports and gymnasticsImage: Seth Wenig/AP Photo/picture alliance

Neither the International Olympic Committee (IOC) nor the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) seemed to feel this issue was within the realm of their responsibilities.

"With regards to such allegations, there are many other organizations, including the International Criminal Court, who are better placed to investigate whether they are true or not," the IPC said in an emailed statement to DW.

Another spokesperson at Paris 2024 said, for security and privacy reasons, they were unable to give details on whether al-Aroub had what is known as a Paralympics identity card. But, they added, all applications had to be cleared by relevant government authorities. 

A diplomatic source in the French government told DW on background that applications for the Paralympic Games are currently being processed and that these would be subject to the usual "administrative security investigations." The source also said al-Aroub wouldn't have any kind of diplomatic immunity just because of his Olympics role.

It would be difficult to simply arrest al-Aroub in Paris. There are some legal options — France is able to arrest individuals who committed torture abroad — but there are limits on how that law can be used. 

Refugee Olympic Team's Aram Mahmoud hits a shot in his men's singles badminton group stage match against Indonesia's Jonatan Christie during the Tokyo 2020.
Syrian badminton player Aram Mahmoud is one of eight Syrians on the Olympic refugee teamImage: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Balancing sport and politics

Neither this kind of protest nor the Olympic organizers' apparent reluctance to get involved is surprising, said Adam Scharpf, an assistant professor of political science at Copenhagen University, who researches how autocrats use sports for their own ends.

"Political tensions surrounding big sports tournaments are probably the norm rather than the exception," Scharpf told DW.

There is a long list of national committees banned from previous Olympics, including Germany and Japan after World War II, South Africa for some two decades under apartheid and Afghanistan because of the Taliban's discrimination against women. Most recently, sportspeople from Russia and Belarus may only attend as "internationally neutral athletes," and there have also been calls to uninvite Israel due to the country's ongoing actions in Gaza and the West Bank.

"Sport has always been political," Scharpf said. "For organizations such as the IOC, this inevitably means a dilemma. On one hand, it's about taking the Olympic charter and statements on peace, international understanding and human rights seriously. On the other, one shouldn't cooperate with repressive dictatorships and their representatives."

With regard to the Syrian case, Scharpf suspects there's another problem, too. 

Syrian children march during a parade resembling the Olympics' parade of nations as part of a small-scale Olympic-style event held for internally displaced children by volunteers .
Displaced Syrian children held their own version of the Olympics in Idlib in 2021Image: Anas Alkharboutli/dpa/picture alliance

"The accusations [against al-Aroub] seem to relate, among other things, to his involvement in the Baath Brigades," Scharpf pointed out. But just as with the NUSS, these had no official ties to the Assad regime.

"We know that such groups are strategically used by governments so they can later distance themselves from violence they ordered. It's about plausible deniability," Scharpf said. "The flimsy connection obviously makes it difficult to identify and sanction people associated with such a group. It also allows organizations like the IOC to claim ignorance."

In an email to DW, the Syrian Paralympic Committee denied the allegations against al-Aroub, saying these were politically motivated. They did not say whether he would be traveling to Paris again. 

Should al-Aroub be deterred by the activists' work and the media coverage, the SBC's Nahlawi says they would consider that a victory of sorts.

"Because the broader message is that there should be no place at the Olympics for war criminals," she concluded. "When you give war criminals a platform like this, it sends a horrible message to all the victims and their family members who continue to seek justice."

Edited by: Kate Hairsine

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.