The murder of one of Syria’s greatest activists shames the West

On 23 November, one of Syria’s greatest activists, Raed Fares, was shot and killed by assassins believed to be members of the Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al Sham, formerly the Nusra Front. It was the second time Fares had been targeted by extremists who maintain a presence in Syria’s northwest.

The region is home to around 3 million civilians with the extremists making up just 1% of the total population. In some areas they maintain a semblance of control over civilians, intimidating and extorting them while ineptly trying to govern.

For ordinary people, the presence of these groups brings a threefold misery. They endure poor treatment at the hands of the extremists; they are targeted by airstrikes from the Assad regime, which uses the militants as an excuse to try and reclaim the northwest; and they have been hit hard by cuts to international aid from governments who fear the money will end up in extremist hands.

Fares’ civil society collective, the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus (URB) was hit hard by these funding cuts, which affected URB’s ability to run women’s centres and offer educational and job training programmes. The jewel in the crown, Radio Fresh, was close to going off air—despite being vocal in its opposition to extremism and saving lives by warning civilians of incoming airstrikes. Donations from people worldwide have helped Radio Fresh survive a little longer but without government support the station may be forced to close

In the northwest, civil society is what stands between Assad’s warplanes and the militants’ bullets. As more and more countries withdraw aid, vital programmes will be forced to shut, leaving civilians to try to counter extremism and face the Syrian regime’s war crimes alone.

“This year, major donors like the US, UK, and Netherlands decided to stop their stabilisation programmes in northwest Syria,” says Isam Khatib of the civil society group, Kesh Malek, which runs counter-extremism projects and provides education and training schemes to local people.

Such decisions puts extra burden on the civil society organisations who are pushing against extremist ideologies, dealing with complicated social problems, and responding to community needs.”

“In the wake of Fares’ killing, the same governments that had pushed URB and Radio Fresh to the brink, expressed their public condolences over his death,” says Laila Kiki, Executive Director of the Syria Campaign. “Though sincere, there seems to be an inability or an unwillingness to recognise that their cuts helped bolster the very people who gunned Fares down. Governments must rethink their decision to cut off aid to the northwest, lest the militants grow even more in strength.”