A Syrian activist from the northern countryside talks about keeping alive the anti-regime, non-Islamist revolution amid the constant threat of shelling and the spectre of ISIS.
KAFRANBEL — Raed Fares, a Syrian activist from the northern city of Kafranbel, in the Idlib countryside, has long been at the forefront of protests against President Bashar al-Assad. He is the man behind the witty Arabic and English-language banners in his city, addressed to Western and Arab governments, which became famous as the voice of an uprising. As a result, he's become a hero to some and a target to others, narrowly surviving an assassination attempt in January.
Now Fares is struggling to keep the spirit of that uprising alive, as Kafranbel deals with regime shelling, wartime living conditions and the fallout of U.S.-led airstrikes. Fares spoke to Syria Deeply about the state of revolutionary fervor in his town, a bellwether for the moderate, pro-democracy protest movement across Syria.
SYRIA DEEPLY: How are you, Raed? How’s life in Kafranbel?
RAED FARES: Acceptable. Putting aside the daily grind of living in a war zone, I can say that the situation is good here, and that we've gotten used to it.
It's definitely not normal, but I can say that after three years of being at war it's become normal. People go on with their lives: They go to the market and move around the city in a normal fashion. Most of them are looking for employment. The prices have gone up, and it's become difficult to make ends meet. The economic situation in the city is bearable and better than it was two years ago.
The city hasn't had any running water for three years now, and no electricity for two. There have been no phones whatsoever for two years now. We're working on a project to provide drinking water to the residents of Kafranbel with the help of an American organization. We're expecting to wrap things up in December. Over the past three years, several people have dug up shallow wells up to 70 meters deep as a personal initiative. They built pumps and started selling water to the residents. It cost $50 a month to have access to water. We hope that our project would alleviate people's worry that the wells might dry up soon, which would present a real problem.
There's a power shortage of up to 20 hours a day, so residents started paying for generators, but these too cost $50 a month. This is a considerable sum for a Syrian to pay, so most people buy water but forgo electricity.
The Free Syrian Army is currently controlling the city, mainly the Fursan al-Haq Brigade, which is stationed in the southern section of the Idlib countryside. The brigade is responsible for protecting the city, and has set up five checkpoints at the city entrances and exits. Naturally, there are daily regime air raids on the city.
You were the one responsible for organizing protests and writing banners every Friday in Kafranbel since the beginning of the revolution. But you suddenly stopped demonstrating against the Assad regime. Was it because of the U.S.-led airstrikes?
We haven't demonstrated in a month and a half, but not because of the airstrikes. There are several reasons that go beyond that, most importantly that the number of participating residents in the protests has declined sharply. While the essence of the protests is to show a popular sentiment, when I realized that it's only the activists who are taking part in the demonstrations, I had to stop and think of something else. I tried calling on people to demonstrate in Kafranbel and the surrounding villages. I talked to the residents there, and we organized three consecutive protests under the slogan of "getting the revolution back on track." The first demonstration took place in the village of Maarat Harma, the second in Maarat al-Numan and the third in Kfaraawi. These were all a success, and the demonstrators included civilians as well as activists.
So why did the residents stop taking part in the protests?
They lost hope that the demonstrations would translate into change. They talk about the bleak reality that once they demonstrate, a few media activists take their photos or videos, people would watch them, but everything ends there. After three years of demonstrating, nothing changed, even when the situation in Syria has been widely publicized and the world now knows of the Syrians' suffering. The world didn't lift a finger. The second and main reason is the shelling. Kafranbel is bombed at least three times a week, and the raids usually target large congregations, especially the demonstration square that's been shelled twice. People are now scared and stopped demonstrating.
Another thing is that when I organize a protest, I tell the residents about it a week in advance so they can tell their friends and relatives about it. But the regime knows about the date and time via its informants and shells the demonstration. The three villages mentioned above were all shelled only a few hours after the demonstrations. Civilians had an extremely negative reaction to that.
What are the reactions of the moderate Syrians in Kafranbel with regard to the coalition airstrikes?
Kafranbel was never a target of the airstrikes since the Islamic State has no presence here. The U.S. bombed Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, parts of Homs and Aleppo. But their airplanes fly over our city along with the regime air force, which means that they and the regime are coordinating. They say they don't want to coordinate with the Assad regime, but U.S. planes are flying with the regimes in the same air space.
Opinions vary, but the moderates say that the heart of the moderate movement in Kafranbel is the media center and the activists there. They are responsible for the protests, banners and other activities that the media has covered. That's why Kafranbel is seen as moderate, whereas the city is just like any other in Syria. There are moderates, conservatives and radicals. Kafranbel civilians are part of the Syrian people, but the community here is patriarchal and extremely conservative.
I and a group of young activists in the Kafranbel media center were angry about the airstrikes. Personally, I was even more so after the first strike targeted Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. I was angry because they overlooked Hezbollah, Iran and the Assad regime, which have killed and terrorized the Syrian people. It killed using all means available, from knives to chemical weapons. Yet they targeted Islamist groups, which are, in my opinion, a product of the regime. As a person living in Kafranbel, reality changed after the airstrikes.
Also, the airstrikes negatively affected the Syrian opposition, which we the activists have built our hopes upon for a revolution. The majority is angry because Western countries target Islamist groups while allowing the regime a free hand to kill and destroy for four years. The majority believes that their goal is to fight Islam and not terrorism. It's become linked to a specific religious identity, and that's when people turn to support Islam and Islamist groups to defend their own identity. This is what happened in some areas such as Kfarroma and Hass, where people demonstrate to support ISIS after the airstrikes. Whoever is fighting ISIS today is, in fact, fighting an ideology and not individual people.
What is your opinion on the quick spread of ISIS on Syrian soil? How dangerous is it?
In my opinion, ISIS is a lot more dangerous than the regime. We, as a Syrian people who are in the opposition, are in agreement that the regime is our bane and that it's our duty to topple it. The problem with ISIS is that it's related to the religious identity of Islam. It's known that any society living in a war zone under the threat of death on a daily basis would radicalize, and going to extremes to stand up the regime is expected. The danger posed by ISIS is that it takes advantage of the idea that not all Syrians opposing the regime believe ISIS is a threat.
If you could talk to President Obama, what would you tell him?
I believe that he, 10 years from now, will consider that his biggest mistake was Syria, just as Clinton did when he stated that his biggest mistake was Rwanda.
You've organized protests for three years until people slowly started abandoning the streets. What are your future plans? Anything for the upcoming month?
I'm working on a project to start a radio station and a TV channel. I'm taking part in two conferences next month, one in the U.S. and the other in Poland. Regarding the revolutions, I will return and so will the protests. We will carry on. Don't dwell on the bleak picture I draw you. It's been there since day one of the revolution. We have many challenges and obstacles. We go to bed tonight not knowing if we will wake up tomorrow. We were displaced from our homes and spent a year living in tents in orchards until the city was liberated from the regime forces. That's when we returned to our homes. There've been many massacres in Kafranbel, and the shelling is ongoing. A people who have lived such events will not be deterred and will not be silenced until we get our demands.