Raed Fares is no stranger to confrontation. Since the very beginning of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, he has been at the forefront of a rebellion calling for freedom of speech and democratic values.
From the small city of Kafranbel in Idlib, Fares first hit the pages of international newspapers via his role as the brains behind the city’s witty English-language banners, placards largely addressed to Western audiences that have provided cutting sarcasm, humor and truth through five years of bloodshed.
And although his role as an outspoken community leader has brought him close to death more than once – he narrowly survived an assassination attempt in late January 2014 – Fares has by no means been deterred. He is committed to strengthening Syrian civil society.
From radio stations to women’s centers to media trainings, amidst all the violence and chaos, this man from Kafranbel is taking crucial steps toward rebuilding a strong Syria.
Of all his ongoing projects, Fares believes the women’s centers are most important – particularly in an area like Idlib, where large swaths of territory are controlled by conservative Islamist groups like the al-Qaida affiliated al-Nusra Front.
“Women have the most critical role in rebuilding Syria and raising the next generation of Syrians,” said Fares, whose seven centers in Idlib focus on providing Syrian women with the skill sets to take active roles in their communities.
But in order for the violence in Syria to stop, in order for Syria’s civil society truly to flourish, according to Fares, President Assad must go.
“Assad is responsible for all of the killing and all of the terror in Syria,” he said. “All of these armed groups and terrorist groups came about because of Assad – he is the source of all of it. For the killing to stop, he needs to go.”
Syria Deeply spoke to Fares at his home in Kafranbel via Skype earlier this week about his recent trip to the United States, during which he met with key players in charge of Washington’s Syria strategy, his numerous ongoing community projects in Idlib, the consequences of Russia’s military intervention and the recent attacks in Paris.
Syria Deeply: So we heard you were at the White House last week. Did you have words with President Obama?
Raed Fares: We met with Rob Malley, Obama’s special adviser on the Middle East under Susan Rice at the National Security Council. The White House was very interested to hear the perspective of Syrians living in Syria and of prominent members of civil society on what kind of political solution would be acceptable and would be supported by the society.
They asked me about different cease-fire options, different versions of political settlements. They were trying to gauge what could possibly work for Syrians.
Rob Malley, who has been involved in the Vienna meetings, shared with us some of the U.S. government’s perceptions on the ongoing negotiations. He said he felt there was progress being made, but said they were still skeptical. But the Syrian Support Group released a statement on Sunday saying that an initial agreement on a way forward has been reached. So I guess we’ll see.
In addition to that, I gave them some details about the effect of the Russian airstrikes on the ground, especially in Kafranbel and the surrounding area. I told them that Russian strikes are mostly targeting aspects of civil society – hospitals, schools – and moderate opposition groups. They are specifically not targeting extremist groups.
Syria Deeply: So one of the first things you mentioned was an acceptable solution, if one were to ever come about. What is your vision of an acceptable solution?
Raed Fares: The only acceptable solution is for Assad to leave power. That’s it.
Syria Deeply: Can you give us an insight into the effects of Russia’s airstrikes on the ground?
Raed Fares: I’ll tell you what I told the folks at the White House. Russia is targeting moderate opposition forces, hospitals, schools and civil society organizations. And civilians, too. We tried to explain to them [the U.S. National Security Council] that there is a difference between the bombing from the regime and bombing from Russia.
When Assad bombs, it’s a barrel bomb or two and they’ll bring down one or two buildings. But when Russia bombs, they’ll take out an entire neighborhood. Assad’s planes won’t fly when the weather is bad, when it rains or even at night. But the Russian planes will fly and bomb day and night. They are in the air 24/7.
The Russians, they say they’re hitting Daesh (ISIS) or “terrorist” groups – but that’s rarely, if ever, been the case. Daesh is at least 100km away from most of the areas they are hitting.
Yesterday, they hit a primary school in the Maarat al-Nu’aman district, about 10km away from Kafranbel, killing three students. This is a city of about 150,000 people. We drove through it yesterday. The entire market is destroyed.
In Kafranbel they’ve continually hit the Orient Hospital and civil administration offices. They also hit civilian homes. Just a week ago a father and his daughter were killed during Russian airstrikes.
In Idlib in general they’ve been hitting groups that are supplied by the U.S., like al-Fasa’el al-Haq, Tajammu al-Aaza and Suqour al-Jabal. They’ve also been hitting the camps that have been created for internally displaced persons in our area. They completely destroyed one camp on Oct. 8 that’s about 15km to the south of here in Idlib. The people in the camp fled their homes because of the Russian bombings to hide in tents together in an olive grove, and then they were targeted with rockets in the middle of the night.
The Russian strikes are 100 times more powerful than Assad’s. There’s no comparison.
Kafranbel is well known. We do demonstrations, yes, but there are no extremist groups here. There is no Nusra [Front] here or Daesh. In our town, they are only targeting members of the Free [Syrian] Army (FSA) and civilians.
Syria Deeply: Aside from the continuation of your weekly protests in Kafranbel, what other kinds of community projects do you have going on at the moment?
Well, yes, our weekly protests are ongoing, but their number has decreased a great deal. People are afraid of large gatherings, which have been, and are, targeted by airstrikes. But we have many other projects.
The biggest project we have going is our radio station, called Radio Fresh FM. We broadcast 24 hours a day with different kinds of programming – news updates, women’s programming, children’s shows, breaking news updates and warnings about nearby airstrikes or incoming airstrikes. We warn civilians when there are regime or Russian helicopters flying in the sky. We let people know which direction they’re headed. The station is actually one of the most listened to channels in all of Syria. We have more than 400,000 returning listeners – which is a huge number.
The radio also has a few subsidiary projects. There are three affiliated magazines and a training center for media activists, journalists and presenters – all of which is facilitated under the auspices of the radio.
We also have a women’s division that is led by Ghalia Rahal, whom Reuters recently presented with an award for courageous journalism. She is now running seven women’s centers across the south of Idlib that provide vocational training, education, language and computer classes, etc. The point of these centers is to get women out of the home and into public life, to get them more actively engaged.
Women have the most critical role in rebuilding Syria and raising the next generation of Syrians – that’s the idea behind the project.
We also have educational projects aimed at getting kids more involved in their schools and promoting the importance of psychosocial therapy.
We built a small soccer field in Kafranbel – kids are playing on it from sunup to sundown. When they’re playing, everyone is screaming and yelling – it’s the one time of the day they can’t hear the roar of the jets overhead, or gunfire nearby.
These are all projects focused on awareness, but we also have projects focused on the provision of services. We brought running water back to Kafranbel and the surrounding villages. The goal with these projects is to provide people in serious need with the services they simply aren’t getting, in addition to building the credibility of alternative institutions so that people are more willing to work with us on and in our other projects.
Syria Deeply: So what’s your goal in facilitating all these projects?
Raed Fares: The goal is to build a homeland. Everybody knows that we live on a farm owned by Assad’s family. Our goal is to destroy that farm and build a homeland in which Syrians can truly live.
Syria Deeply: What is your perception of the talks going on in Vienna?
Raed Fares: It seems like these negotiations are more serious than the last ones that took place in Geneva. But I really can’t imagine that it will change much on the ground going forward. It’s better than Geneva at least …
Syria Deeply: What is your reaction, as a Syrian, to the killings that took place in Paris last week?
Raed Fares: From a human standpoint, any killing anywhere in the world is tragic. So as humans, but also as Muslims, the killing of one innocent person is akin to killing the entire world. This senseless and purposeless killing is disgusting. What happened in Paris is incredibly sad, particularly because we as Syrians are so very familiar with this kind of killing. Innocent people in Syria have been dying every day for five years now – we know what that pain is like. When attacks like this take place in Paris or in Boston or anywhere else in the world, we know how painful it is. But what’s strange is that when something like this happens in any country other than Syria, the entire world starts talking about it. Except for Syria. For the past five years, more than 200 people a day, on average, are being killed this way in Syria. And it’s not just Daesh and the regime doing the killing in Syria, it’s states like Russia and Iran, and groups like Hezbollah. Five years and Syrians are dying every day and there’s never been a global reaction the same as the likes Paris or Boston. We’ve never seen a reaction that large when it comes to Syria.
Syria Deeply: What needs to happen to solve the ongoing bloodshed in Syria?
Raed Fares: Assad is responsible for all of the killing and all of the terror in Syria. I told them this in Washington. All of these armed groups and terrorist groups came about because of Assad – he is the source of all of it. For the killing to stop, he needs to go.
Top image: Members of Kafranbel’s weekly demonstration display their latest sign in reaction to the deadly attacks in Paris which took place on November 13, 2015. (Photo courtesy of Raed Fares)