Omar al-Aroub, the current second-in-command in a Syrian pro-regime militia accused of war crimes travelled to Paris in August 2023 and received an official welcome as head of the Syrian Paralympic Committee. Our team identified images of al-Aroub armed and in uniform, wearing the logo of the Ba’ath Brigades. A man with links to al-Aroub confirmed his role in the brutal repression of anti-regime protests in Aleppo in 2011.
Omar al-Aroub posted a photo of himself standing in front of the Eiffel Tower on August 31, 2023. Al-Aroub, who has close links to Syria’s ruling family, the Assads, is also second-in-command of a pro-regime militia called the Ba’ath Brigades, which has been accused of war crimes.
He also happens to be the head of the Syrian Paralympic Committee. Between August 24 and 29, 2023, the heads of national Paralympic committees held a meeting in Paris.
The official website of the Olympics confirms that Syria has a team that will participate in the international event, set to be held in Paris in July and August 2024.
Officials with Paris 2024, the official name of the upcoming Olympic games, told French media outlet TF1 info that Omar al-Aroub had indeed participated in the meeting. They claimed they had only just “discovered the allegations against him”.
The Ba’ath Brigades, the military branch of Assad’s Ba’ath party
Shocked to see al-Aroub strolling around Paris, a number of Syrian opposition media outlets based in Europe circulated images of al-Aroub, showing him in military uniform and wearing the badge of the Ba’ath Brigades. None of these photos were posted on his own accounts.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team was also able to find images of al-Aroub published on Facebook in 2018 by fighters with the Ba’ath Brigades. These photos show al-Aroub wearing a military uniform with the Ba’ath Brigades logo on it.
Al-Aroub also has close links to President Bashar al-Assad – al-Aroub has even published photos of the two of them together on his Facebook account. Moreover, an official photo from 2019 shows them side by side.
The Ba’ath Brigades is a Syrian paramilitary group that formed during the first anti-regime protests back in 2011. The group, made up almost entirely of Sunni Muslims, is considered the armed wing of Assad’s Ba’ath party. The group, which is centred in the Aleppo region, counts nearly 10,000 fighters amongst its ranks.
The first leader of the Brigades was Hilal al-Hilal (2012-2015). Then, Ammar Saati took over and has ruled the group since 2015. Because both of these men are heavyweights in the ruling Ba’ath party, they were placed under European and American sanctions. Omar al-Aroub is not on any sanctions list.
This isn’t the first time that al-Aroub has participated in the Olympics. He actually represented Syria at the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo, back in 2021.
‘At the University of Aleppo, he ordered that students be thrown from the fourth floor’
The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, a Syrian NGO based in Paris, gathered testimonies from people who knew Omar al-Aroub. One testimony came from Ahmad Mansour, who got to know Omar al-Aroub back in 2008 at the University of Aleppo. Mansour has since left Syria and now lives in exile.
In 2008, Omar al-Aroub was one of the heads of the National Students Union, an organisation with links to the government. At the time, I was head of administrators at the department of dental medicine at the University of Aleppo.
After the general conference of the National Student’s Union was held in Damascus in 2010, al-Aroub was elected a member of the executive bureau of the Union, which had been led by Ammar Saati. This is where al-Aroub started to form the privileged links he has with the government, the intelligence services and the party leaders. He has said that he knows Maher al-Assad personally [Editor’s note: Bashar al-Assad’s brother].
In 2011, when the revolutions began in Tunisia and elsewhere [Editor’s note: the Arab Spring], Omar al-Aroub got student volunteers to repress the protests. Often, they carried truncheons. In March 2011, al-Aroub handed out individual weapons (pistols) to students and the administrative body when they went to the mosque [Editor’s note: people against the regime often gathered in these places].
During a meeting held by university leaders the same month, al-Aroub asked for participants to report everything happening in university residences and to shut down any gathering. He even told the heads of student housing to throw any student opposed to the regime from a fourth-floor window.
People actually were thrown out of windows as part of the crackdown on protesters in 2011.
The website for the Syrian Olympic Committee confirms that al-Aroub was part of the Student Union and the Ba’ath Brigades.
Another photo, with restricted visibility on Facebook, was sent to the FRANCE 24 Observers team. It shows al-Aroub with a group of members of the Ba’ath Brigades in the Hama campaign in April 2017.
According to Firas Kontar, a Syrian opposition activist based in France, al-Aroub may have been nominated to lead the Olympic Committee as a reward for close ties with Bashar al-Assad.
In 2011, there was a brutal crackdown on protesters at the University of Aleppo. The regime was afraid that the protest would spread across the rest of the city – which is the second-largest city in Syria and the nation’s economic capital.
We sent a number of questions to the Olympic committee in Paris. They said that they had received our message. We will update this article to include their response if they provide it.