A prominent anti-government activist in Syria who used biting wit to draw international attention to his country’s plight was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in his hometown Friday, his friends said. The activist, Raed Fares, used videos, skits and protest placards that referenced American culture and often went viral on social media to criticise the Syrian military, jihadis and Western leaders he felt had failed to stop the violence that tore his country apart.
The killing of Fares, 46, comes as the war in Syria is winding down. President Bashar Assad has retaken most of the country with the help of Russia and Iran, although armed rebels and Kurdish militias backed by the United States still hold significant territory.
But for those like Fares who saw the uprising against Assad as a revolution and hoped it would bring democracy, his killing was a bitter sign of how remote that dream has become.
“The last flame of a once very proud and aspirational revolution by civilians is snuffed out,” said John Jaeger, a former State Department official and friend of Fares. “I hate thinking about it like that, but there it is.”
Other activists seeking political change in Syria are still working, Jaeger said, but the dangers have driven most of them abroad.
“There arent that many people with his visibility and his status who are still inside the country, so its a huge blow,” he said.
Like many Syrians who were inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings to protest against Assad in 2011, Fares had no background in politics or activism but plenty of reasons to revolt against the Syrian government, which had been dominated by Assad and his father, Hafez Assad, for more than four decades.
The Assads had always handled dissent brutally, and Fares recalled watching as a child as security agents killed his neighbour. He also remembered terrified people fleeing to Kafr Nubul, his hometown in northern Syria, in 1982 after a massacre by government forces seeking to root out Islamic militants in the city of Hama.
When the uprising broke out in 2011, Fares, who had dropped out of medical school to study English and was working as a real estate agent, joined enthusiastically.
He shot videos in the aftermath of government attacks to post online, organised protests and helped design English-language banners to catch the attention of Americans. Some targeted US policy and were widely shared on social media.
“Obama! Your role in Syria will never be accepted as a mistake like Clintons Rwanda,” read one placard, criticising the Obama administrations reluctance to intervene militarily against Assad. “It will be a premeditated crime.”
Others expressed sympathy for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, and offered condolences on the death of actor Robin Williams, quoting a line of his from the film “Aladdin”: “To be free. Such a thing would be greater than all the magic and all the treasures in all the world.”
In 2013, Fares produced a satirical video, “The Syrian revolution in three minutes,” that used Syrians dressed up as cave men to lampoon the international communitys failure to protect Syrian civilians from the security forces, bombings by government forces and chemical attacks.
With financing from the State Department, Fares started a local radio station, Radio Fresh, that broadcast music, news and warnings about incoming airstrikes.
But civilian activists like Fares came under increasing pressure as extremist groups like the Syrian branch of al-Qaida and the Islamic State gained power in rebel-held areas. They opposed broadcasting music and stormed the radio station to stop it, as well as objecting to the promotion of what they saw as Western ideas like democracy.
In 2014, two gunmen from the Islamic State attacked Fares outside his house, shooting him in the chest, one of the many efforts by extremists to stop his work.
Fares was keenly aware of the risks and told a reporter for The New York Times in an online chat that he was working “in a minefield,” but did not want to leave Syria.
“This is our revolution and we will continue,” he wrote. “We managed to confront them through our media, so the only choice they have is to kill us.”
Last year, Fares spoke at the Oslo Freedom Forum about his efforts early in the war to document the attacks that often killed his friends.
“They werent numbers, they were people, my relatives, people I know, my friends,” he said. “Assad is still killing, but we are continuing with our revolution until we achieve our dream of Syria as a democracy for everyone.”
But the trajectory of the war had made activists like Fares increasingly rare. The State Department had cut support, so the radio station was off the air, and Fares was scrambling for support for other projects supporting students and women.
A tenuous deal between Turkey and Russia was the only barrier to a Syrian government assault on Idlib province, where he lived. And extremist militants were still active in the area.
On Friday, he was driving home from a mosque with a friend, Hammoud al-Juneid, when gunmen opened fire on their car, killing both men. Fares friends assumed the killers were from an extremist group linked to al-Qaida.
Fares was buried Friday afternoon and a friend who attended his funeral was shocked at how subdued it was, in contrast to the boisterous protests that Fares had once organised in the town.
“He was the spirit of the revolution, and today I really felt that we lost the last spirit,” the friend said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear that he, too, would become a target. “All those who started the revolution of Raeds age either died or fled, so who will mourn Raed the way that he used to mourn the martyrs in the past?”