x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Lionel Messi: the world's best footballer and part of an anti-Syria conspiracy

Barcelona footballers do not just have a slick passing game, they can also secretly indicate arms smuggling routes to Syria, a pro-government Syrian television channel claimed this week.

Lionel Messi, who broke Barcelona's goal scoring record this week, and his Catalan teammates have been sending signals to Syrian gun smugglers with their fluid football, according to a pro-government television channel.
Lionel Messi, who broke Barcelona's goal scoring record this week, and his Catalan teammates have been sending signals to Syrian gun smugglers with their fluid football, according to a pro-government television channel.

BEIRUT // Barcelona footballers do not just have a slick passing game, they can also secretly indicate arms smuggling routes to Syria, a pro-government Syrian television channel claimed this week.

Without a hint of irony, Addounia TV superimposed a map of Syria on a screen to show how Lionel Messi and his teammates, representing smugglers, had kicked a ball, representing a weapons shipment, into Syria from Lebanon.

The subtle signals to rebels were transmitted when Barcelona played Real Madrid in December, said the channel, which is owned by a cousin of President Bashar Al Assad. It did not trouble viewers by revealing Barcelona's motives for the exploit.

"First we see how the guns are brought from Lebanon," the presenter comments as one player passes the ball. "Then they cross into Homs and give the weapons to other terrorists in Abu Kamal."

Messi's final flick indicates the successful handover of the weapons to their destination in eastern Syria, he said.

Bizarre it may be, but paranoid conspiracy theories are common coin in the deeply divided and conflict-ridden state.

Take a documentary aired by Addounia in December on how French and American film directors had purportedly helped build mock-up Syrian city squares in Qatar to enable Al Jazeera to film actors staging phoney anti-Al Assad protests.

Such fantasies feed into Mr Al Assad's narrative that the year-long unrest against him is all a foreign-orchestrated plot.

"We will defeat this conspiracy," he declared in January, pledging to crush what he has cast as terrorism and sabotage. "Regional and international sides have tried to destabilise the country. We will not be lenient with those who work with outsiders against the country."

Joshua Landis, an expert of Syria at Oklahoma University in the US, says conspiracy theories reflect the mistrust between ruling minority Alawites and the majority Sunnis who spearheaded the revolt.

"How can you expect them to be any less conspiratorial? The sectarian lines of hatred are growing and [Mr Al Assad] thinks that everyone is a traitor," he said. "This has plagued the country since it was created."

Paranoia is compounded by the media environment in which Syrians can watch Al Jazeera, which often shows graphic footage of casualties inflicted by security forces, or state-sponsored television, which portrays rebels as blood-crazed terrorists.

In the old city of Damascus, Al Assad loyalists have laid a poster with the hated Al Jazeera emblem on it along a main walkway for shoppers to trample on.

The uprising has spawned a media war, with both sides fighting to sway public sentiment through online propaganda and conspiracy theories, consigning truth to an ever greyer area.

Many Syrians are befuddled by the claims and counter-claims.

"We might not believe pro-government television, but we don't trust the satellite channels either," a Damascus resident said.