Raed Fares has been part of the Syrian Revolution from the beginning. From the town of Kafranbel in Northern Syria – known to many as the “beating heart” of the Syrian Revolution – Fares has worked with artists and activists to create iconic posters depicting the political needs, struggles and victories of the Syrian people – and to have Syrian voices heard around the world.
Now, Fares, Kafranbel and the activists of the Syrian Revolution are preparing for another battle – today, January 10, is the first “Day of Rage” against ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), the al-Qaeda-linked group that is actively seizing the liberated provinces of Syria to push a fundamentalist agenda.
On Thursday, I had the chance to sit down with Fares and ask him about how the Syrian revolution has changed since its inception – and why, despite three years of catastrophic violence that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions, he still insists on calling it a revolution.
Anna Lekas Miller for Truthout: Right now the US and international media is focused on the chemical weapons deal and whether or not there will a peace agreement at the upcoming Geneva II talks. First, what is the story that is being missed? Second, tell me a little bit about what it is like to be in Syria right now.
Raed Fares: The entire revolution is missing. What the international media and politicians have done is take two very small stories and made them huge while completely ignoring the bigger picture of the revolution.
The shortcoming of the media is that they focus so much on the chemical weapons that killed 1,400 people and completely ignored the use of the conventional weapons used by the regime that killed over 250,000 Syrians. If you want to talk about Geneva II, they’re taking a war criminal – instead of taking him to the Hague, for justice – they’re taking him to peace talks and negotiations.
In Syria, there are still people who are calling for dignity and honor. We have Bashar al-Assad’s regime that is still killing people with barrel bombs, airplanes and airstrikes. We have attacks from Hezbollah and Iraqi militias. Now there are extremist – terrorist – groups that are killing us and detaining us inside of Syria as well.
We have a catastrophic humanitarian crisis that the regime has created from the bombing and displacement of civilians. But most importantly, the biggest fact that is missing – and the key to building a future Syria – is the civil society work that is being done and the nonviolent resistance that continues.
The first Day of Rage against Bashar al-Assad was organized almost three years ago. Tomorrow, there will be a protest against ISIS – which has become another factor in Syria’s resistance. How has the landscape of the revolution changed from then until now?
There have been many different stages, from the beginning of the revolution until now, but what mobilized the people from the beginning is the same concept that mobilizes the people today. The way that the regime has terrorized the people for more than 40 years is the same as the way that the extremists and terrorist groups are terrorizing people on the ground in Syria.
The same people who are fighting against the regime are the same people who are revolting against terrorist groups, such as ISIS. This points to the fact that the same people will continue to fight oppression and continue to revolt until they reach what they want: freedom and dignity.
How has the presence of ISIS altered your resistance tactics?
Right when ISIS entered Syria, we knew their agenda – but it was difficult to convince the people because they are seeing so much death. It is a Muslim society – so when someone sees themselves as close to facing death, they are going to try to get closer to God, because they do not know when they are going to die. So when the average Syrian from Idlib saw ISIS coming – a very religious group – they saw them as the people who will finally bring justice and finish Assad.
We had to show the people that ISIS has an agenda that is very bad for the Syrian people – and that they are not going to finish Assad. It was a difficult battle. We had to show the Syrian people that ISIS was harmful, without directly implicating ISIS – otherwise we would be targeted and killed.
The first thing we did in our protests was lift banners and signs against them; they weren’t directly against them, but it was to raise awareness about how their actions were bad for the revolution and the people. At our media center in Kafranbel, we have a radio station – and on that station we have religious talk shows. So, we would take a social issue going on in the city itself and give the response using the true religion of Islam, not the one being pushed by ISIS.
From that radio show, the Sheikh – a religious leader in Islam – would use examples or violations that ISIS committed – and criticize them for being un-Islamic and instead pushing their own extremist agenda. On the radio, there was also news of what ISIS was doing – kidnapping citizen journalists, selling oil to the regime and closing the Turkish borders that allow humanitarian aid into Northern Syria. These radio shows raised awareness that what ISIS was doing served the regime, not the revolution.
At one point, ISIS understood what we were doing – and that is when they attacked our media office. For us, this was the tipping point. When ISIS attacked our media office, the people realized their true agenda – and that’s when they rediscovered their need to revolt.
Recently, there was a lot of discussion concerning Western – particularly United States’ – intervention in Syria. What is the best way that activists and concerned citizens in the United States can support the resistance in Syria? Last night, you mentioned that there is too much of a focus on humanitarian aid and not enough on Syrian media, the regime and the real reasons for revolution. What would you like to see more of from the international community?
The Assad regime was able to turn the revolution into a humanitarian crisis in the eyes of the international community. He kills and he displaces – so the international community doesn’t see that he is the source.
Instead of stopping Assad from killing and displacing, the international community is trying to deal with the results. It is providing humanitarian aid rather than fixing the source – band-aid solutions to a far bigger problem.
When there were discussions of airstrikes happening, there was hope among the Syrian people. However, most of the American population stood against the strike – they didn’t want the US to be involved in another war against another country. What they didn’t know or understand was that this would have been a good thing for the Syrian people to remove a killer from power. It is not an operation of war, it is an operation to end a war.
The most preferred method at this point is supporting and providing weapons to the Free Syrian Army.
If you are going to talk about Geneva II, it is a political solution. Any solution that comes out of Geneva II is one that will only please the Assad regime; we will go back to Square One and the revolution will continue. We would rather that the international community strengthen the Free Syrian Army on the ground and provide the military support so that they can become stronger and equal to the force of Assad. Then we will be able to go to the negotiation table for peace talks.
In the western media, the Syrian uprising went quickly from being called a revolution to being called a civil war and a crisis. But you are very adamant about calling it a revolution. Why?
Why did the French people demand that the French Revolution be called the French Revolution? It was weaponized and there was violence. It evolved through many stages with many killings and many battles. But at the end, it was successful and of benefit to the French people. So why shouldn’t this happen in the Syrian revolution? We are people uniting against oppression and want freedom and dignity.
We don’t need to be held accountable for what the regime did to us.
The people that are with the regime are also with all sects, not just one specific sect. If you want to call it a Civil War, that means two sects of people fighting each other, but what you have in Syria is people being killed by a regime.
We have been faced with violence that is unreal. We saw factions from the Syrian Arab Army defect and form the Free Syrian Army. The Free Syrian Army is supposed to protect the people, but their weapons are very little and weak compared to those of the regime. Despite that, the people are still continuing with their revolution.They are continuing with peaceful nonviolence like protests and civil society organization. The civil society organizing is still happening. The peaceful resistance is still happening. So why would we call it a war?
In the media, we often hear about the tragedy of Syria – we hear about the enormous loss of life, the daily violence and the refugee crisis. However, your tour is called “Hope.” Where do you see the hope in the Syrian revolution? What do you wish for the future?
Before I came here, the people were revolting against the regime. I was a little bit afraid of the situation with the terrorist groups like ISIS. But when we came here, we saw the movement of the second revolution. I saw that the people are against tyranny – all forms of tyranny. I am convinced that these people will not give up. Because in all of history, there has never been an oppressor or a tyrant that has won over the people. There was never a tyrannical way of being that has won over the people. On the ground, I see when a young man is killed, 10 more people come up from the people.
When you see a fountain of water come up from the ground, you see a mix of stones and dirt that is mixed with this water. When it bursts, it is dirty, there is mud and rocks and stones. But as it continues, it purifies itself – it becomes clean. Soon you can drink it.
And that is why the revolution will be victorious.