NEW YORK – Only weeks after the murder of Syrian activist and satirist Raed Fares, the radio station that he founded faces closure amid ongoing death threats to staff members and a cash-flow crisis as western donors scale back funding.
Colleagues of Fares told TRT World they would work to keep Radio Fresh broadcasting a message of democracy and human rights across the northwest province of Idlib, but were struggling to plug a funding gap of an estimated $10,000 per month.
Fares founded Radio Fresh with US State Department cash in 2013 to broadcast news, music and warnings about incoming air strikes, but the Trump administration scrapped funding earlier this year to northwest Syria, saying it'll rather sharpen its focus on the northeastern territory.
“We’re looking to get funding from the European Union, because the US has withdrawn from northwest Syria,” Lilia Wassef, one of the activists representing Radio Fresh and other civic schemes in Idlib, told TRT World, after meeting officials in Brussels.
“We have now hit rock bottom after Raed’s death. But we must move forward. We must continue Raed’s message and his work. Syria’s democratic movement is an idea, and it will not die with Raed or any of the movement’s icons.”
Fares, together with his colleague Hammoud Jnaid, was gunned down in his home town of Kafranbel on November 23. The attackers have not been identified, but Fares was previously threatened by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
French President Emmanuel Macron and former US envoy Samantha Power mourned his death on social media, as did his 30 radio station colleagues and 520 others working on connected community projects, as part of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus (URB).
Fares had planned to travel to Brussels last week to try and plug the US funding gap with meetings at the Service for Foreign Policy Instruments, the European External Action Services and other parts of the EU foreign policy machinery.
Wassef, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, attended instead, and detailed the value of the radio station and women’s empowerment projects. Her colleagues have made similar requests to the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ).
An EU official confirmed talks with Wassef’s delegation and said they supported radio station staff, who are widely viewed as a moderate voice amid Syria’s turbulence, but that they were not ready to replace US funding just yet.
The radio station, and other URB projects, were “presented as a successful example of the critical role that civil society plays in Idlib in countering radicalisation and in supporting the population,” the EU official told TRT World, under condition that his name was not used.
“No specific project proposal was discussed or figures presented but their demands were about the need to step up support to civil society and the work of civil actors on the ground. The EU has always been at the forefront of recognising the critical role that civil society plays.”
Importantly, the official noted that Fares was “tragically killed by HTS”. While it was widely assumed that the al-Qaeda-linked group was behind the assassination, it had not previously been confirmed by officials.
A US State Department official declined to comment on Fares. In May, the department said it had cut all funding to Syria’s extremist-run northwest. In August, Washington confirmed that $230 million for Syrian “stabilization projects” would be spent elsewhere.
Abdy Yeganeh, from the non-profit group Independent Diplomat, advises URB in Brussels and at other international confabs. He said the radio station, like other pro-democracy projects in Syria, was operating at a limited capacity and faced an uncertain future.
“Raed was such an energetic character on the ground and his death was no doubt a major loss at a difficult time for Radio Fresh, which, like other civil society groups in Idlib and beyond, has struggled as the US and Western donors have scaled back their stabilisation funding,” Yeganeh told TRT World.
According to Yeganeh, European donors had followed Washington’s lead, by cutting cash for groups that embodied the spirit of the 2011 uprising by rejecting both Assad and the religious hardliners that had gained prominence as the war dragged on.
Other civil society groups – such as The Syrian Network for Human Rights, the Syrian Center for Freedom of Media and Expression and Baytna Syria – were also struggling to pay the bills as donors turned their backs on moderates, Yeganeh said.
“While donors may be adapting to the new realities in Syria and the greater likelihood of Assad’s survival for now, this is still a short-sighted policy step. Civil society actors on the ground, like Radio Fresh, remain the best illustration of Syria’s only credible alternative to tyranny and extremism,” Yeganeh said.
Fares, 46, became a prominent voice of dissent in the early days of the revolution, using videos, skits and protest placards referencing American culture that often went viral on social media to criticise the Syrian military, religious extremists and Western leaders.
In 2013, he produced a satirical video called the Syrian revolution in three minutes, in which Syrians dressed up as cavemen ridiculed the global community’s failure to protect civilians from bombings by government forces and chemical attacks.
In 2014, Fares survived being shot in the chest by armed militants. In June this year, he criticised the US government’s decision to freeze funding to humanitarian groups, saying it undermined efforts to combat extremism.
"Without groups like Radio Fresh to provide alternative messages, another generation will take up arms to found the Islamic State’s second and third editions," Fares wrote in the Washington Post, a daily US newspaper.
The plight of Radio Fresh comes as the war in Syria is winding down. Assad has retaken most of the country with the help of Russia and Iran, although US-backed armed rebels and militias such as the YPG still hold significant territory.
Russia and Turkey, which backs Syrian rebels, agreed in September to create a demilitarised zone around the insurgent-held Idlib, but exchanges of shelling have been common since then and the first airstrikes since the deal hit the area on November 25.