The Man Syria’s Jihadists Want Dead

Raed Fares is the mastermind behind a campaign to help ordinary Syrians stand up to jihadists terrorizing their town —a valiant act that prompted an assassination attempt.

Long before the attempt on his life, before his poster campaign went viral on social media, Raed Fares worked in real estate to support his wife and three children in the northwestern city of Kafranbel. Among the first Syrians to join the revolt, he became aware of the revolution in early 2011, when he saw images online of a protest in the old city of Damascus. Fares became an artistic activist, candidly exposes the horrifying conditions of his home city—and two years later, his work went viral when he posted a photo of locals holding a banner he had created to express sympathy for the victims of the Boston bombings: “Boston bombings represent a sorrowful scene of what happens every day in Syria. Do accept our condolences.” The profound message, sent straight from the Syrian battleground, exploded online in the United States and prompted an equally earnest reply from a group of Bostonians, holding a sign that read “Friends in Syria, we too hope for the safety of your families and for peace. Love, Boston.” The powerful images served as a heart-wrenching reminder of borderless humanity and the reach of social media.

Since then, Fares and his fellow activists have produced hundreds of posters, uploaded at great risk to themselves, that lambast both the Assad regime and the foreign jihadists now terrorizing Syria’s villages. Fares’s messages, delivered in English, strive to shatter stereotypes and resonate with American audiences, reminding them of the tragedy of Syria’s ongoing war. Among the most memorable have been posters expressing condolences for the deaths of Trayvon Martin and James Gandolfini. After George Zimmerman was acquitted, Fares and fellow activists posted another photo of Syrians holding a banner that reads “Martin family! The Syrians are the best who know what it’s like to lose loved ones by immune criminals.” Upon Gandolfini’s passing, Fares and his comrades sent another banner photo that read, “We are so sorry that Tony Soprano is dead. We wish Assad, the Syrian mafia boss, had died instead.”

The Kafranbel posters have jilted both the regime and the rising tide of al-Qaeda affiliated Islamists inside Syria. Messages expressing solidarity with Syria’s Christian community and denouncing the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) as traitors are extraordinarily daring and fly in the face of what Fares calls “the regime’s narrative of division and sectarianism.”

Fares’s activism has made him a prominent target—and his enemies decided to strike this week. As Fares was leaving the Kafranbel Media Center on Tuesday, he was shot in the back by unknown assailants. Two bullets lodged in his abdomen and he was taken to the hospital for surgery. His vital organs appear to be undamaged, but his life is clearly in danger as more details of the attack emerge.

The threat of attack has hung over Fares’s life, and over the small city of Kafranbel, for three years as Assad’s men and various groups of radical al-Qaeda affiliated rebels have besieged the town on all sides. The city’s 2011 revolt against the Assad regime resulted in an army invasion with what Fares reports to be “thousands of soldiers and up to 100 armored vehicles.” Despite the ongoing siege, the city held what Fares describes as “Syria’s first democratic election” to appoint a civic coordination committee, which ultimately agreed to eject the regime army—aided by a wave of defections by soldiers sympathetic to the revolution.

When regime ground forces were pushed out of Kafranbel, airstrikes followed and killed hundreds of civilians. Despite the ongoing bombardment, various civic organizations went to work in the hope of maintaining a civil society in the absence of the government. Fares and fellow activists set up the iconic Kafranbel Media Center and founded a radio station, which warns civilians of impending regime attacks and broadcasts educational and feminist dialogues.

Over the last year, Kafranbel has struggled with what Fares described, in an interview earlier this month, as a “new tyranny” in the form of ISIS. He explained the wave of fanaticism in historical terms: “The revolutionaries were originally peaceful protestors who had a clear vision of a civil Syrian state, but as the brutality of the Assad regime continued to increase, they had to pick up arms.” Subsequently, Fares said, foreign funds led to division among the previously united group of anti-Assad rebels. “The revolutionaries were no longer united on the single issue. You had the exile opposition and the internal opposition, and with all of these different groups, it became impossible for all of the components of the revolution to combat the well-funded and well-structured narrative that the regime was pushing.”

In an effort to challenge Assad’s narrative, Fares originally began making posters targeting Arab audiences, but switched to English when he realized that Syria was getting attention in the United States. He hopes to convey the message that “the men carrying weapons are often mistaken for the voice of the revolution but the people are the true voice of the revolution”

Like many Syrians and analysts, Fares thinks Syria’s power vacuum has allowed ISIS to gain prominence—yet Kafranbel has proven unwilling to bow to the cruel interpretation of Islamic law espoused by the al-Qaeda affiliate. Resistance to ISIS authority is best exemplified by two posters—one depicting the ISIS as a hand stabbing the moderate rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the back; another depicting ISIS as the monster from the movie Alien. Such displays of defiance caused ISIS incursions into the city. The militants kidnapped several activists and assaulted the media center, stealing electronics and wiping the building clean of activist materials. Despite these threats, Fares is always eager to emphasize that ISIS is the enemy and that “Syrians of all kinds have helped us in our civic work…our dream remains a democratic and civil state with freedom for all Syrians.”

Despite vastly unfavorable circumstances, the city’s defiance has been strongly validated in recent weeks, culminating in what Fares refers to as the “Revolution of January Third,” a broad declaration of war against ISIS by almost all other armed Syrian groups. In what once seemed a suicidal struggle, Kafranbel has been surprisingly successful at directly confronting ISIS, which Fares now calls “heretic agents of the regime.”

The work of Kafranbel has had a palpable effect on the course of the revolution. The harassment of Kafranbel’s media center by the Islamic state of Iraq and al-Sham was listed as one among the reasons in the official declaration of war against al-Qaeda by the myriad other rebel factions. Fares says, “hopefully this will make other groups think twice before they try to behave in the same way.” Many Syrians have referred to this event as the second revolution. Fares’s take is slightly different. “This is an extension of the original revolution—a triumph of the popular will over all tyranny.”

Earlier this month, Fares managed to get out of Syria to join his colleague, the opposition activist and feminist blogger Razan Ghazzawi, in what was dubbed the “Voices of Hope” lecture tour to connect Americans with secular Syrian activists abroad. On a freezing night at the New York University campus, after months of communicating via Skype across language barriers and oceans, I finally had the chance to speak with Fares in person. As we parted ways after our brief meeting I asked him what his greatest fears and hopes were for the future. “In regards to my fears, I have none. No regrets either,” he said. “My hope, however, is that since we have started in the right direction, we won’t stop until we reach our dream… a civil state which guarantees rights for all Syrians.”

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At this moment the revolutionary, like the nation of Syria, is clinging to life. In addition to an outpouring of support, his colleagues have posted a Facebook video of him, bloody, but still breathing on the operating table. The video is a message to his supporters and the murderers who sought to eliminate him: Raed Fares is alive, and he is still fighting.