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The shooting death of a prominent Syrian anti-government activist serves as a cautionary tale

The shooting death of a prominent Syrian anti-government activist serves as a cautionary tale
Mourners attend the funeral of Raed Fares and Hamoud Juneid in the village of Kafranbel in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib on Friday. (Muhammad Haj Kadour / AFP/Getty Images)

Till the end of his life — years after Syria’s early “Arab Spring” peaceful protests had morphed into bloody sectarian warfare — Raed Fares insisted he would continue the fight against the autocratic government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“We weren’t [even] the slaves. We were the animals in this farm,” he said in a 2017 presentation at the Oslo Freedom Forum, referring to life under the dynastic rule of Assad, who met initial calls for social change with an iron-fisted response.

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“The question is, was it worth doing a revolution? It was.”

Yet Fares’ killers, who peppered his van with dozens of bullets after he and a colleague left Friday prayers, were not from the government. Instead, his friends contend, Fares was slain by Al Qaeda-linked jihadis who, over the years, have come to dominate the remaining opposition to Assad.

For many, the death of Fares, whose viral videos and banners once grabbed the world’s attention, represents a mortal blow to the original spirit of the 2011 uprisings — and for some, a cautionary tale of the forces unleashed in the fight to overthrow Assad.

In many ways, Fares’ trajectory mirrored the fortunes of the opposition he embraced when “Arab Spring”-inspired protests that began seeking Assad’s ouster spread across the country after emerging in several cities far from the capital, Damascus.

A real estate agent before 2011, Fares helped organize the first protests on April 1 in his native Kafr Nubul (also known as Kafranbel), a town of some 30,000 in the province of Idlib.

“We broke the barrier of fear, we decided to no longer be animals,” Fares said of those first protests, explaining that he became a media activist, using his Nokia 6700 phone to record nonviolent protests — and the government’s crackdown — before sneaking over to neighboring towns to upload the videos.

From those beginnings he came to the attention of the opposition’s benefactors abroad, including, at the time, the U.S. State Department under President Obama.

He was given a mobile satellite internet connection and a laptop, he said in an interview in November 2013, and that same year received enough funding to create the Kafranbel Media Center and become a go-to resource providing information to foreign journalists covering the conflict.

Later, he also founded Radio Fresh, a radio station broadcasting from Kafr Nubul that Fares said had employed hundreds and trained thousands of activists.

He also documented gruesome government attacks on his town, including airstrikes that became a daily routine in rebel-held parts of Syria’s north.

“It’s the smell of burned blood, of vegetables, of body parts, of gunpowder,” he said of the scent he would encounter at the site of airstrikes. “It was the smell of frustration and pain that stays in my brain for 50 years, and every time I pass by this place I smell the scent.”

Fares became particularly well-known for the banners he helped design in Arabic and English, the latter often channeling pop culture references and significant events around the world. Many went viral on social media.

One banner gave condolences to victims of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, saying that the attacks represented “a sorrowful scene of what happens every day in Syria.” Another addressed Caitlyn Jenner: “We would write Kafranbel with a C if it means like you we would be free.”

A large number mocked Assad and his allies Iran and Russia, or vilified Obama and other Western leaders for their reluctance to adequately support non-jihadist opposition groups.

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Then, as Islamist factions (including the Al Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, now known by the Arabic acronyms HTS) gained power — their hardened cadres spearheading rebel victories across the country and later taking over all of Idlib province — Fares and others activists were forced to accommodate allies that had little interest in a democratic vision for Syria.

“We were always threatened because of our work, that we shouldn’t broadcast music because [the Nusra Front] said it was forbidden,” said a Radio Fresh employee who refused to give a name for reasons of safety in a conversation on the WhatsApp messaging service on Saturday. “The editorial section was also forced to change the voice of women to men, all because of the Nusra Front.”

Yet it wasn’t enough to mollify the militants. The radio station was stormed several times. Fares himself was abducted by jihadis, and survived assassination attempts, including one by Islamic State militants who shot three bullets into his chest.

Nevertheless, he remained insistent that the true enemy was Assad, accusing him of creating groups like Islamic State “just to show the international community that what was happening in Syria was a war of Assad against terrorism.”

“The truth is that the Syrian people are the victim of both terrorisms,” he said at the Oslo Freedom Forum. “The terrorism of Assad on one side and the terrorism of [Islamic State] and the extremist factions on the other.”

Over time, his message was lost on benefactors both weary of supporting the opposition and wary of the militant fighters who had become its vanguard.

That included President Trump, who froze $200 million in stabilization aid to the country, essentially cutting the support to people like Fares while allowing the jihadist HTS to remain in Idlib. (The province is now under a Russian-Turkish cease-fire agreement. Its future is uncertain.)

“Trump is giving his voters the impression that the United States has defeated the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. But the terrorists are still here, and so is their ideology,” wrote Fares in an opinion piece in the Washington Post in June.

He vowed to keep his radio station active as a counter to what he called “Al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups” that were now “recruiting fearful and disenfranchised youth” and “winning an ideological battle for Syria’s soul.”

“Syria’s democratic future relies on our success,” he said.

Late on Friday, activists posted a video depicting a funeral procession, with dozens of mourners riding motorcycles and trailing a truck bearing Fares’ body on the way to Kafr Nubul’s mosque.

In the wake of Fares’ death, colleagues wonder if Radio Fresh will continue.

“Right now we’re all in shock…. None of us will do anything till after the mourning period,” said the Radio Fresh employee, adding that they had not received a salary in six months and had relied on Fares personally for financial support.

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