A “beacon of hope and bravery,” an icon, a modest and humble man who exuded the hope of the early, peaceful, revolution in Syria in 2011. That is how Raed Fares is remembered. He was murdered on Friday, November 23, the latest victim of the Syrian conflict which had cost hundreds of thousands of lives and driven millions from their homes. Raed’s death is seen as symbolic, particularly because of the unique role he played at his media center and radio station, where he sought to highlight the peaceful activism of local, average, Syrians.
His death is shocking because it also may symbolic worse to come in Idlib. In September fears that the Assad regime would launch an offensive were put on hold when Turkey and Russia signed an agreement. Heavy weapons and extremists would withdraw from a buffer zone and Turkey would make sure that the people were protected.
Muhammed Fares, a Syrian journalist, notes that although we don’t know who did it, the assassination leaves an impression that worse is to come. “It could be HTS. Raed was arrested before by Nusra along with Hadi Al Abdallah. The escalation of assassinations is a hint that Russia/Assad are coming. Mysterious assassinations such as Zahran Alloush and Ahmad al-Ghadban come before something bigger.”
Fares, who is not a relative of Raed’s tweeted about the killing. “The loss of such people is huge for every Syrian human rights defender, media activist, and journalist… I talked with Raed several times on Facebook in order to check facts in Idlib. He was such a humble and honest person. I guess that the whole Kafranbel revolution concept is such an innovative thing in the Syrian revolution concept. Being one of the creators of Kafranbel concept, I guess that Raed will be remembered as an example of the peaceful revolution that has been killed by all the radicals: Assad, ISIS, Nusra and the likes.”
His killing has sent shockwaves through the local community and followers online, particularly among journalists and activists who follow Syrian and the Syrian conflict. It is the latest high profile attack on a journalist since the killing of Saudi Arabian journalist and former insider Jamal Khashoggi in October.
According to reports in local Arabic media Fares was murdered in Kafranbel where he was well known locally for documenting the struggle of Syrian opposition against the Bashar al-Assad regime. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said he was killed in Ma’arat al-Numan, a town near Kafranbel, so the location of the killing is still unclear.
“The message of the Kafranbel media center is that the people of Kafranbel condemn the state’s violence, as well as the violence of armed militias.”
He was murdered alongside Hamod Jnaid, another activist. Fares ran the Kafranbel Media Centre. He had been threatened before. Unknown gunmen tried to kill him in 2014 and in 2016 members of the Nusra Front, a branch of Al Qaeda, detained him. In 2014 after the attempt on his life, one account noted: “Al-Fares, who was known as the main impetus behind the Kafranbel banners which made the small town world famous, had been, since the early days of the revolution, one of the main proponents of nonviolent activism against the regime of Assad. His convictions that creative, nonviolent and civil resistance was the only path to victory for the revolution, had set him up on a collision course with Islamist militias from the early days of militarization.”
According to a report in 2016; “Mr Fares and Mr Abdullah were arrested at 8am on Sunday when members of al-Nusra raided the station. It forced staff to step on the green, white and black flag of the original Syrian revolution – since rejected by the group in favour of a black banner – before burning it.” They had been warned against playing music. ““They said that the songs were inciting evil and immorality,” a worker at the station said to The Independent.
Many people online, including prominent Syrian activists and supporters, expressed shock at the murder. Lina J. Al wrote “words cannot describe the good you brought into the world.” Iyad el-Baghdadi, President of the Kawaakibi Foundation linked the loss to a “stream of terrible news.” It was an irreplaceable loss, he wrote, “an inspiration, a friend, an icon.” Fares was seen as an iconic original member of the Syrian revolutionaries who arose in 2014 hoping to change Syria’s dictatorship and taking inspiration from the Arab Spring. He was the “mastermind of the famous Kafranbel banners,” wrote Molly Crabapple, co-author of Brothers of the Gun.
A video of Fares posted online shows him speaking about the desire for freedom and dignity. He discussed how he founded his media center. “I used to take pictures of demonstrations and spread them on the internet,” he said in 2013. But the regime would shut down telecommunications access in his town to prevent the dissemination of images. “So I used to go to other cities in order to upload the videos.” Once Kafranbel was liberated from the government he was able to set up a media center in a former government building to document the rebellion. He posted video and photos of the banners he became famous for photographing. One banner reads “Assad government members who defend Assad authenticated crimes should be sent to the ICC, not Geneva,” a reference to charging them with war crimes, not negotiating with them. Another reads “force Assad and Hezbollah to free Madaya,” a besieged Syrian town.
Kafranbel, where Fares was from, is a town of around 15,000 in Syria in a historic region of Idlib known for the “dead cities” of the Byzantine era. There are other historic landmarks nearby, some 700 ancient settlements that include historic churches and ruins.
In his most recent tweets he put up videos of demonstrations. In Idlib in September a video shows hundreds of activists marching with flags. “Take a look, take a deep look, do you see terrorists,” asked Fares. “Russia and Assad are preparing to attack these people, these people are here to say stop the war criminals.”
Questions abound about who might have murdered Fares and his colleague. Locals said a van had pulled up and shot him. The killing will leave many questions about security in Idlib. Idlib province has been the site of tensions because it is one of the few areas in Syria still controlled by the opposition. Now it is part of the wider Turkish sphere of influence in Afrin and Jarabulus.
In September, after the Syrian regime threatened an offensive to re-take Idlib, Russia and Turkey agreed on a ceasefire in the province. As part of the agreement Turkey, which backs the Syrian rebels, would ensure that heavy weapons were withdrawn from a buffer zone in Idlib and that extremist groups, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) would withdraw. HTS is the current name of Nusra, the same group that once harassed Fares. For instance they tried to get him to stop playing music on his radio station, so he played farm animal noises in 2017.
Turkey was supposed to increase its role in Idlib after the agreement. This was intended to mean that the extreme armed groups leave the province, or accept the new reality, and reduce infighting among rebel groups. This increased hope in what might come next in Idlib. Russia has said that Turkey has been unable to get HTS to withdraw and clashes between HTS and the regime continue from time to time. The killing of Fares will now raise questions as to who is responsible. He was a passionate opponent of the regime but he also faced difficulties from militants and extremist groups.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Seth Frantzman