KAFR NABAL, Syria — A prominent Syrian activist was gunned down Friday with a colleague in the country’s last rebel bastion, in another blow to the dwindling civilian society that helped spark the 2011 uprising.
Raed Fares and Hamod Jnaid were “shot dead by unknown assailants riding in a van in the town of Kafr Nabal” in the northwestern province of Idlib, their radio station Fresh FM said on its Facebook page.
Fares — who founded the broadcaster — was an influential figure known for his often humorous signs in English and Arabic criticizing President Bashar Assad’s regime during weekly protests at the start of the revolt.
Radio station colleague Ali Dandush, who was in the backseat of the car carrying the two activists when it was ambushed, said three men got out of a van and unleashed a deadly volley of gunfire.
“I would have preferred to die with them,” Dandush told AFP. “They meant everything to me.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the two men died of their wounds from the attack, for which there was no immediate claim of responsibility.
“They were famous for their criticism of rebels committing violations or arresting civilians, especially when it came to jihadist groups,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
More than half of Idlib and the surrounding region is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance led by jihadists of Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, while most of the rest is held by pro-Turkey rebels.
The Islamic State (IS) jihadist group also has a presence in the province.
Targeted killings and kidnappings have for months plagued Idlib, with angry residents blaming all sides.
‘Voice of Kafr Nabal’
Both men had been detained “several times” by HTS in the past, the Observatory said.
Fares, a 46-year-old father of three children, had been repeatedly targeted since he founded Fresh FM in 2013 to counter what he called “fundamentalist narratives” in Idlib.
IS fighters raided the radio’s offices on several occasions, but regime forces also bombarded it, he said.
“In 2014, I almost lost my life when two armed men opened fire at me and shot me in the chest,” Fares wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post in June, after US funding to Fresh FM was cut.
“I was abducted four times by al-Qaeda militants and released a few days later after being tortured.”
Fares regularly used humorous skits and protest placards to criticize the Assad regime, jihadist groups and Western leaders he believed failed to stop the violence in Syria.
A 2013 video made by Fares featuring Syrians as grunting cavemen lampooned the West’s response to a regime chemical weapons attack on opposition-held areas of Damascus that killed up to an estimated 1,700 people.
Jnaid, who also worked at the radio, was an advocate for freedom of expression and the rule of law.
“I want freedom of opinion. I want to be able to speak and not be scared,” he said in a video posted on Facebook earlier this year.
Born in 1980, Jnaid had five children, including a disabled girl, according to his friends.
Several hundred people attended funerals for the slain activists in their hometown of Kafr Nabal on Friday afternoon.
Bilal Bayush, a friend and fellow activist, rushed to the hospital as soon as he heard about the shooting.
He and others waited anxiously as Fares fought for his life in the operating room, until the doctor emerged to give them his condolences.
“They had been the voice of Kafr Nabal since the beginning” of the uprising, Bayush told AFP.
“We buried them, but we still don’t fully realize” that they have died, he said.
A September deal between regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey held off a major regime assault to retake Idlib.
But a buffer zone has yet to be implemented around the region, as stipulated by the deal, after jihadists refused to withdraw from a planned demilitarized area by mid-October.
Syria’s civil war has killed more than 360,000 people and sent millions fleeing from their homes since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-regime protests.
It has since evolved into a complex conflict involving world powers and jihadists.