Olympics 2024: Iranian and Syrian paramilitaries in Olympic delegations

Where does sport end and geopolitics begin? Paris is preparing to host the Olympic Games in 2024. As part of the preparations, members of the repressive forces of the Syrian and Iranian regimes visited France this summer. It was a simple photo of a tourist visiting the capital that launched the debate.

The entrance to the headquarters of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games in Saint-Denis, August 13, 2023. © Michel Euler / AP

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In the photo, a brown man, blazer jacket on white t-shirt, poses in front of the Eiffel Tower. A photo as it is taken hundreds in Paris every day. But this face has been recognized by many Syrian netizens. It is that of Omar al-Aroub, number 2 of the Baath battalions. "This person is the number 2 of a paramilitary group that has supported the Syrian army in its war. I remind you that the UN has described it as a war of extermination against the Syrian population," explains Thomas Pierret, a researcher at the Institute for Research and Studies on the Arab and Muslim World (Iremam). The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression collected testimonies from former relatives of Omar al-Aroub. One of them describes how he ordered student housing officials to throw all opponents of the regime out the window.

This summer, it was therefore as a representative of the Syrian Paralympic Committee that Omar al Aroub appeared at the preparatory meetings in Paris. A conversion that does not surprise Thomas Pierret: "The paramilitaries had become really cumbersome for the regime. Some had created a kind of small mafia empires. Since 2018, when the regime really re-established its control over a large part of the territory, with the support of Russia, it has worked to reduce the power of the paramilitaries. Some were thrown into prison, others were redirected to a civil route. They got some kind of compensation by getting, for example, a seat as an MP or, in this case, positions in the Syrian Olympic Committee.


Another participant in this preparatory meeting for the Olympic Games was spotted by human rights defenders. In the same position, but in the Iranian team, is Ghafour Kargari. He is also a senior soldier, a former commander in the Quds Force, the elite force of the Revolutionary Guards. Its presence on French territory has also enabled two Iranian NGOs to file a complaint of torture. "We have seized the national prosecutor's office against terrorism crime against humanity so that the French justice system takes the initiatives it considers it should take. He was able to leave, but I think he will think twice before coming back to France," said the plaintiffs' lawyer, Emmanuel Daoud.


It was unimaginable that a man who has committed acts of terrorism or who has given instructions to do so and who is part of the tools of Iranian repression could walk quietly in France on the occasion, moreover, of the preparation of the Olympic Games in Paris, adds the lawyer. Olympic Games that are, as you know, traditionally associated with peace and security.


Read alsoInterview - Olympics 2024: why a collective calls for the exclusion of Iran for discrimination

No willingness of the IOC to regulate on this issue

If these two men have been identified and their presence denounced, it may not be that they are the only participants in the controversial past. "The International Olympic Committee tries to do as little politics and interference as possible," says sports geopolitical analyst Kévin Veyssière. There are 206 national committees. To avoid this kind of situation, a collective charter would have to be put in place for the International Olympic Committee to take up this subject. But that's not the IOC's goal.


Yet the same International Olympic Committee banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from competitions in February 2022, just after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. "We must put ourselves in the context of the time, relativizes Kévin Veyssière. There was the fear of a possible third world war. And then, the IOC, like most international sports organizations, is more focused on Western issues. Finally, more than a year after the beginning of the conflict, they are trying to return to a more apolitical position. There is an attempt to reinstate Russian and Belarusian athletes with drastic conditions.


The Quai d'Orsay quickly declared earlier this month that France is only the host country and that "invited delegations are designated by the International Olympic and Paralympic Committees". For its part, the Paris 2024 Organising Committee says it has no say in the composition of the national committees invited by the International Olympic and Paralympic Committees. "Regarding the conditions of entry into the territory, we invite you to contact the competent authorities," he adds.

We contacted the French Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Sports to find out what action would be taken now that the identities of these two men had been detailed and publicized. We have not received a response.

" READ ALSO No hijab for French athletes in Paris 2024, the UN recalls its opposition in principle

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  • France
  • Olympics 2024
  • Iran
  • Syria
  • Human rights
  • Olympic Games