Syrian media activist and journalist Raed Fares was reportedly assassinated in Kafranbel (Kfar Nabl) in Idlib province in northern Syria on Friday.
The murder of Fares, who was well known and had been threatened before, has sent shock waves through the local community and followers online, particularly among journalists and activists who follow Syrian and the Syrian conflict. It is the latest high-profile attack on a journalist in the region since the killing of Saudi Arabian journalist and former insider Jamal Khashoggi in October.
According to reports in local Arabic media, Fares was murdered in Kafranbel, where he was recognized locally for documenting the struggle of Syrian opposition against the Bashar Assad regime. The journalist was murdered alongside Hamod Jnaid, another local activist.
Fares ran the Kafranbel Media Center. Unknown gunmen had tried to kill him in 2014, and in 2016 members of the Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda, detained him. He worked at a radio station called Radio Fresh, which had been targeted by extremists before.
Friends and contacts of Fares remember him as a humble and honest man.
“Raed will be remembered as an example of the peaceful revolution that has been killed by all the radicals,” said Muhammad Fares, a Syrian journalist. “The loss of such people is huge for every Syrian human rights defender and journalist.”
Many people online, including prominent Syrian activists and supporters, expressed shock at the murder.
“Words cannot describe the good you brought into the world,” wrote Lina J. Al.
Iyad el-Baghdadi, president of the Kawaakibi Foundation linked the loss to a “stream of terrible news.” It was an irreplaceable loss, he wrote, of “an inspiration, a friend, an icon.”
Fares was seen as iconic and an original member of the Syrian revolutionaries who arose in 2011 hoping to change Syria’s dictatorship and took inspiration from the Arab Spring. He was the “mastermind of the famous Kafranbel [activist] banners,” wrote Molly Crabapple, co-author of Brothers of the Gun.
A video of Fares posted online shows him speaking about the desire for freedom and dignity. He discussed how he founded his media center.
“I used to take pictures of demonstrations and spread them on the Internet,” he said in 2013. But the regime would shut down telecommunications access in his town to prevent the dissemination of images. “So I used to go to other cities in order to upload the videos.”
Once Kafranbel was liberated from the government, he was able to set up a media center in a former government building to document the rebellion and local activism, including the banners of which he became famous for photographing. One banner read, “Assad government members who defend Assad authenticated crimes should be sent to the ICC, not Geneva,” a reference to charging them with war crimes, not negotiating with them.
In his most recent tweets, he put up videos of demonstrations. A September video near Idlib showed hundreds of activists marching with flags.
“Take a look, take a deep look, do you see terrorists,” said Fares. “Russia and Assad are preparing to attack these people, these people are here to say stop the war criminals.”
Mystery surrounds who might have murdered Fares and his colleague. Locals said a van pulled up and shot him. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said he was killed in Ma’arat al-Numan, a town near Kafranbel. The killing will leave many questions about security in Idlib.
Idlib province has been the site of tensions, because it is one of the few areas in Syria still controlled by the opposition. In September, after the Syrian regime threatened an offensive to re-take Idlib, Russia and Turkey agreed on a ceasefire in the province. As part of the agreement, Turkey, which backs the Syrian rebels, would ensure that heavy weapons were withdrawn from a buffer zone in Idlib and that extremist groups, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), would withdraw.
HTS is the current name of Nusra, the same group that once harassed Fares. The group had once tried to get him to stop playing music on his radio station, so he played farm animal noises instead.
Turkey was supposed to increase its role in Idlib after the agreement. This was supposed to see the more extreme armed groups leave the province, or accept the new reality, and reduce infighting among rebel groups.
The killing of Fares will now raise questions as to who is responsible. He was a passionate opponent of the regime, but he also faced difficulties from militants and extremist groups.