October 23, 2017 / 3:15 PM / in 2 months

Syria's Assad meets once dissident footballers in Damascus

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met two former dissident footballers who returned to the national team for its World Cup qualifying campaign after years in exile, photographs posted by his office showed on Monday.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with RIA Novosti and Sputnik in this handout picture provided by SANA on April 21, 2017, Syria. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

Syria’s football team outdid expectations in its campaign to qualify for the World Cup finals, reaching a play-off against Australia on Oct. 10 that they lost 2-1.

The photographs published on the presidency’s social media feed showed him apparently in amicable conversation with Firas al-Khatib and Omar al-Soma, players who were both pictured with the Syrian opposition flag early in the conflict.

Other photographs showed Assad posing with the whole team and signing a player’s jacket.

Syria’s war, which began with demonstrations against Assad in 2011, has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians and left more than half the population homeless. The army has gained momentum over the past two years, with military support from Russia and Iran.

The government says its policy is to pardon any Syrians who joined the opposition unless they have “blood on their hands”. However, many exiles have said they fear arrest if they return.

The football team’s unexpectedly strong performance in the qualifiers was hailed by many government supporters as a unifying moment for the country. But some opposition supporters identified the team with Assad’s government, and declined to back it.

Writing by Dahlia Nehme; Editing by Angus McDowall and Robin Pomeroy

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