Prominent Syrian activist killed in rebel-held province

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(Photo: AP)

Gunmen in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern province shot and killed on Friday a prominent anti-government journalist who was also a sharp critic of Islamist militants.

Raed Fares’ US-funded Radio Fresh station provides news of the conflict to Syria’s northern provinces and is a source for international news outlets which have largely stayed away from the opposition-held areas amid rising lawlessness.

Fares’ killing was a blow to the few independent voices that have continued to promote nonviolence and democratic change in the war-torn country.

In a June op-ed in The Washington Post, Fares lamented that the US had cut funds to Syria’s opposition areas, including the radio station he founded in 2013 in his hometown of Kafranbel in rebel-held Idlib province. He said such a move would only feed extremism.

“As a journalist and activist, I felt I had a duty to counter the fundamentalist narratives that are spreading among people who have no other source for hope in our war-torn homeland,” Fares wrote in the Post on June 28. His station provided training and jobs for hundreds of young activists and citizen journalists.

“If it weren’t for us and other independent voices, terrorists would be the only source of information about Syria locally and internationally. For that reason, the terrorist groups (and the regime) see us as a direct threat.”

Fares survived an earlier assassination attempt in 2014 when he was shot in the chest by armed men. He was abducted by militants affiliated with an al-Qaida group and tortured. He criticized the militants’ harassment of its critics. His radio station was raided by militants and bombed by government warplanes.

Fares and friend Hammoud al-Juneid died of their wounds after three gunmen opened fire on their vehicle in Kafranbel. A third, Ali Dandouch, sitting in the backseat, ducked the bullets and survived, he later told The Associated Press.

Dandouch said the gunmen fired at them from a moving vehicle.

Social media sites were rife with the news of Fares’ killing. “My last friend & hope 4 a better Syria has been killed (today) after being let down by” everyone, Zaina Erhaim, a UK-based Syrian journalist who left the country in 2016, wrote on Twitter.

Fares gained fame during the Syrian uprising because of continued support for opposition protests even when the conflict took a violent turn.

His town gained attention during weekly anti-government protests because of the humorous English-language banners he created for each rally. “Do not send money. Gold is not edible,” one banner read, urging the world to free a besieged area instead of sending assistance.

He organized protests to express support for the victims of the 2013 Boston bombings, which he called “a sorrowful scene of what happens in Syria every day. Do accept our condolences.”

Fares was also a vocal critic of Islamic militants, supporting rallies against them, and accusing them of silencing dissent. The Observatory reported that more than 390 people have been shot and killed since April in the rebel-held north amid a wave of assassination and lawlessness.

In his op-ed in the Post, Fares said he had seen militants regrouping in the absence of support for the less radical opposition.

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

Mohammed Katoub, a doctor who supports health facilities in rebel-held areas, said public figures and civil society activists are increasingly under threat in northwestern Syria by militant groups. He said at least 13 doctors have disappeared since 2018.

“I think the targeted people are all public figures and community leaders who believe in the same values of humanity, dignity, justice and liberty,” Katoub said. “You can’t know (Fares) without loving him, his smile, his optimism, his hopes for Syria, (his) way of thinking and creativity.”