27 November 2018

Raed Fares died in heroic pursuit of a free Syria


Last week, Raed Fares, one of Syria’s most visible and visionary pro-democracy activists, was murdered in Idlib.

Alongside Fares, his colleague Hammud Junayd was also killed as part of an ongoing campaign of assassination targeting Idlib’s moderates and advocates of democracy.

Fares’ murder elicited shock and sadness across the world, but not surprise. An attempt was made on Fares’ life in 2014, with another coming later; he lived in a state of permanent danger, operating openly in war, aware that those who wanted him dead were numerous, various and violent. Fares knew the risks. He knew his probable fate.

Those who killed Fares were likely jihadists. When his death and the murder of Junayd were reported, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaeda, were broadly deemed responsible. But the killers could, on another day, have received their orders from the Islamic State, or another jihadist group; they could have been agents of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, members of the regime’s militias, Russian soldiers, or Iranian assets – so widely are Fares, Junayd and other moderates hated by violent men.

Fares’ death is so tragic not only because it represents the end of an extraordinary life, but because the story of his valiant, doomed efforts says much about the state of his country’s civil collapse. With Fares gone, it is now more apparent than ever that the dark forces against which he was ranged, and which he opposed, are gaining in strength.

The killers of all colours appear to be winning in Syria.

To understand the tragedy of this outcome, one need only extend the most cursory examination of Fares’ and his colleagues’ work. They were committed to a free Syria, even if the pursuit of that idea claimed their lives. They were figures of hope not only in their home country, but for democrats and reformers across the world.

Fares’ mission could easily attract the most grandiose labels. It was necessarily heroic.

But though Fares faced outwards to the world, he did not occupy the global circuit as other celebrity activists have done. There is no sin in that path, but it is not the one Fares took. His politics were local as much as they were global, centred around his home village of Kafr Nabel and his home province of Idlib.

Fares maintained a radio station, Radio Fresh, which was supported, until that support was cut off in recent months, by some American money. The radio station provided news on Syria’s war and satirised its worst participants – jihadists and regime alike. Radio Fresh faced intimidation and contended constantly with the prospect of closure. The jihadists could not stand Fares’ playing music.

The peaceful protests advocated by Fares included innovative banners and signs, often written in English, often referencing popular culture and recent events, which attempted to draw Syria closer to the watching world. Fares wrote the banners himself, invoking Syrian empathy with other people’s suffering. Poignant examples include Kafr Nabel’s response to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and its heartfelt condemnation of the murder of the journalist James Foley at the hands of ISIS.

With his radio station and with his media activism, Fares put into practice a theory of local democracy which was the closest rebel Syria has come to freedom. This localism was adopted after the world whose goodwill Fares sought acquiesced to the survival Assad’s regime. It accepted that freedom for the whole of Syria could not come about in the face of international indifference. But, Fares argued, this did not mean all was hopeless. Those who retained some freedom to act had a duty to do so – liberating Syria village by village, town by town, extricating whatever they could, no matter how small, from the dual tyrannies of Ba’athism and jihadism, and for the sake of their children.

That is how many will like to remember Fares. A recent photograph has him standing in Kafr Nabel in late September with his sons, the colours adopted by Syria’s revolution around his shoulders, demonstrating against the dark forces whose combination sought to guarantee his demise.

Fares’ murder clarifies what was already known about Syria and about conflict. Tyranny and terror will attempt to crush all opposition. Unchecked, they will succeed.

In a situation of extended internecine violence and civil war, where the extremes are allowed to grow in strength, moderates not only find themselves under pressure from both sides; they are natural targets, because they hold natural legitimacy and exhibit nobility which extremists envy and seek to destroy.

It was virtually inevitable that Fares would, in the course of his work, meet a violent end. And that says something about what has been allowed to happen to Syria by a world whose morality he tried so hard to spur.

James Snell is a British writer whose work has appeared in National Review, Prospect and History Today.