RAQQA, Syria — It's March in Syria, and according to reporters on the ground, the air is palpable with exactly two things: The blast waves from 500-pound bombs, and the anticipation of Syria's unveiling of its annual "March Sadness" bracket.
"I have been looking forward to this since last year when 'US Led Coalition' didn't even make it to the first round," said local convenience store owner Hashim Kheir, who also correctly picked "15 Year Drought" as last year's winner.
"I'll be honest," said Kheir, "I thought 'ISIS Death Squad' was going to take it all, but it just goes to show you that anything can happen in one of the most historically-volatile regions in the world."
Like their US counterparts, the "March Sadness" bracket is way for Syrians to escape the grim reality of every day life, help rationalize why God has forsaken them, and just have some fun. And with this year's crop of exciting talent, residents believe it could literally be anything or anyone that tips the country into the tenth concentric circle of Hell.
"I think it will be Team Russia and Team USA that make it to the finals," said Syrian rebel Mustafa Khalifa. "Both will bomb us, both will call us terrorists, and both will declare victory while simultaneously destroying our infrastructure and cultural landmarks."
"It is really anyone's game," he added.
Fresh faces "Trump Administration" and "nuclear warheads" are trying to punch their ticket on the "Hindenberg of the Middle East" early on, while many perennial darlings and tournament mainstays are returning to this year's tournament, including the Bashar al-Assad regime, leishmaniasis, tectonic earthquakes, and nearly 1,000 armed opposition groups operating within Syria's borders.
Each team prepares differently, but acting CIA Director Mike Pompeo gave reporters some insight into the clandestine agency's planning process.
"We prepare for this tournament like we have done every year since 1946," Pompeo told reporters during pre-tournament interviews. "Arm everyone, let them kill each other, and then let the US military fight a protracted land war it is woefully unprepared for."
The tournament starts today and will continue until everyone caught with "March Sadness" brackets are burned alive for practicing the witchcraft of bracketology and "bathing in the uncleanness of the Shaitan."