In the last few weeks of his life, Raed Fares knew that he was in imminent danger. The man who had survived an assassination attempt and weathered countless death threats began telling friends and colleagues what to do after he was gone. On 23 November, unidentified gunmen drove towards Raed and shot and killed him along with his friend and fellow activist, Hamoud Jnayd.
News of the men’s death spread quickly, devastating people across the world. But with their tears came questions—who among Raed’s enemies was behind the attack and why had they decided to finally silence him?
Everyone in the northwestern town of Kafranbel knew Raed Fares. When the Syrian revolution began in 2011, he began painting protest banners on canvas sheets that took several people to hold up. Witty, sarcastic and often heartbreaking, Raed continued making the banners throughout the regime’s assault on Kafranbel and its subsequent repulsion by the Free Syrian Army. Tapping into Western culture, he made signs mourning the loss of Robin Williams and celebrating Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out—their English messages always linked to the situation in Syria.
Always restless, Raed didn’t stop there. He set up the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus, a civil society collective that advocated for freedom and democracy, ran women’s centres, and provided educational and training programmes. At its heart was Radio Fresh, an independent station that warned local people of incoming airstrikes, spoke out against extremism and human rights abuses committed by the Assad regime.
Being an activist in Syria and standing up for freedom and democracy is dangerous work. The moment he began publically protesting, Raed had a target on his back. In 2014, he survived an assassination attempt in which he was shot at 46 times by militants from the so-called Islamic State. Death threats poured in from extremist groups and regime supporters, the two enemies united in a shared hatred of Raed.
At the time of writing, Raed’s killers remain unknown. Evil enough to kill an innocent man but too cowardly to admit it, the grieving people of Kafranbel have been left to guess at who murdered Raed. There is a growing fear in the town that the Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), formerly known as The Nusra Front, killed Raed after repeatedly threatening his life and to take Radio Fresh off air. After conducting its own investigation, the Syrian Network for Human Rights has said HTS were behind the assassination.
In Kafranbel, residents have bravely held protests against HTS, chanting “Nusra, Out” in reference to the group’s old name that many still call them by. But activists in the town say this may not be enough. Over the past year, international governments including the UK and the US have cut funding to civil society groups that oppose extremism, saying they can’t be sure the money isn’t falling into the extremists’ hands. But without international aid, community groups are left to counter these militant groups alone with the deadly likelihood that HTS and others like them will only grow in strength.
Raed’s death is proof of the power civil society activists have over groups like HTS who are desperate for civilian support and fear the power civil society has to mobilise people against them. The greatest threat to the tyrants is a powerful Syrian civil society, which cannot exist without international support. If governments are truly committed to a free and democratic Syria, they urgently need to rethink their funding plans.
Raed’s station, Radio Fresh has also been hit hard by international aid cuts. If you would like to help keep it on air, donate here