Radio Fresh: Building a Civil Society

We are the Syrian people. What we started as a revolution, Assad turned into a war. Assad persists on killing until this day, but we persist in our revolution until we realize our dream of a democratic Syria for all. (The Syrian Revolution) is changing human beings from the inside. Revolutions are ideas, and ideas cannot be killed with weapons.

2017 Oslo Freedom Forum

It has been eight years since the Syrian people came together to peacefully protest the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad. That’s eight years of war against so many Syrian civilians it’s difficult to know exactly how many have been killed or have disappeared in Assad’s prisons, their fates remaining entirely unknown to their families and loved ones. (The U.N. stopped keeping track of the death toll in 2016 when the numbers became too difficult to verify.)

The first protest of the revolution was in Daraa on March 18, 2011. As further peaceful protests rippled across Syria, the regime responded with violence and a steady stream of massacres, even conducting a chemical weapons attack in Ghouta on August 21, 2013, killing up to 1,500 Syrians.

With no free media in Syria, it was up to local activists to assume the role of journalist so the outside world would know what was happening. At the very start of the revolution in the northwestern province of Idlib, in a small town called Kafranbel, Raed Fares took up his Nokia Slide 6700 and began to document the attacks and abuses by the Assad regime. Fares would then spend the rest of his life fighting for a democratic Syria.

Fares coordinated protests and took to the streets to express anti-regime messages, but he believed that building a civil society was the highest form of resistance. He created the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus (URB), a civil society organization focusing on education, empowering women, children (the future of Syria), and providing teenagers with physical and mental health programs to keep them away from terrorism.

“The ultimate aim or goal of the organization is to lay bases of civil community — a state of justice, and equality before the law. A state which gives and guarantees the rights of its citizens, regardless of their religious and sectarian belongings,” Fares said in an interview.

The URB is an umbrella to countless developmental and service projects that aid the community of Kafranbel along with the greater governorate of Idlib. The most notable to the outside world is perhaps Radio Fresh, an FM radio station devoted to raising awareness amongst citizens, building a civil society, and empowering women. Fares wasn’t afraid to speak out against the government, and when the revolution began he would even blast anti-government messages over the loudspeakers at local mosques. It was this that sparked his idea for Radio Fresh.

Photo taken from The Syria Campaign

Early feedback from the community was that funding for the station would be better put toward basic needs for families — a radio station seemed like a luxury next to things like food and clean water, but Fares was thinking long term (please note that there are projects under the URB that did provide citizens with food and clean water). An advocate for lasting change in Syria, he saw Radio Fresh as a tool for inspiring and instilling the civil society he knew was necessary for that change to take effect.

“Recent history has shown us again and again that enduring peace depends on the existence of a vibrant civil society and free political discourse, a marketplace of ideas where new voices can challenge dictatorship and terrorism,” Fares said in an op-ed.

A program on the station called The Observatory became critical to the community’s safety. With men standing watch for airstrikes 24/7, listeners of Radio Fresh would be given a few minutes’ warning before an airstrike. The watchmen could use walkie-talkies to radio in to the station if a plane was spotted, and whatever program was being aired would be interrupted with an air raid siren to alert listeners. Fares believed that if the airstrike alert saved even one life, it would be worth the cost of the station. Other practical programs were created around how to survive in a war zone: a medical show that taught how to administer First Aid — how to treat head injuries, meningitis, and chemical burns; a program for learning Turkish, as many Syrians flee to Turkey; and programs that taught other languages like French and English.

To ensure citizens would have an equal say in what was going on in their communities, Fares created The Complaints Show. As listeners could not call in to the station due to the regime cutting phone lines, little black boxes with the Radio Fresh sticker were placed around town for people to slip pieces of paper into with their complaints and comments. One complaint was chosen each week to be discussed. The Complaints Show’s main purpose was to cultivate a sense of action and accountability in a society where people had otherwise been forced to quietly accept the actions and decisions being made around them.

Even more than just a radio station, Radio Fresh also provided more than 2,500 men and women with media training. The network of journalists cultivated through the station became a source of on-the-ground information for international news outlets when sending their own reporters was deemed too dangerous.

Women were put on Radio Fresh in 2015, two years after the station’s start. This move was considered bold, as women in Kafranbel generally did not work outside the home. Fares didn’t find the idea so controversial, and to him it was simple: find women and train them. At the time, Kafranbel was being run by al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, al-Nusra. The extremist group was offended by women being on the air as well as by the music that was played (in Sharia law, music is haram, meaning it is forbidden). Fares was kidnapped by al-Nusra and released only under the agreement that Radio Fresh would take women off the air completely and stop playing music. Fares agreed, but instead of removing women from the air, he just disguised their voices to sound like a man’s. He replaced the music that led up to radio programs with animal noises, a sarcastic decision that also held a deeper meaning. “When the people hear animal voices, they will ask ‘what’s going on with Radio Fresh?’ The answer will be, the Islamic armed groups banned music from Radio Fresh because it’s haram. I want them just to think — to use their minds. Is it really haram? You can work the minds. You can move the ideas,” Fares said in an interview.

Fares’s work of building a civil society was a way to combat dictatorship at its root. When a society’s primary or only experience is dictatorship, it can leave the people ill-prepared for lasting change. Fares understood that it is not as simple as just overthrowing the regime, because who is left when the regime falls? When the people of a dictatorship don’t have the democratic foundation or the appropriate tools to step into leadership positions, it leaves space for terrorist organizations to fill that vacuum. After years of education and teachings under the Assads and the Syrian al-Ba’ath party, Fares believed the Syrian people had been led down the wrong path for roughly 50 years, allowing the regime, of Bashar in particular, to “implant a small dictator inside every Syrian citizen.” When the revolution started, it was to protest the Assad regime, but Fares claims it also became about the people themselves and acknowledging what that regime had left inside them.

“We realized that there wasn’t just one Assad at the head of the regime, but he raised in each of us a small Assad,” Fares said in an interview.

Fares knew the Syrian people could do this work on their own without any help from the outside. Through the establishment of the URB, the citizens of Kafranbel and the surrounding region became capable of self-reliance, proving that the Syrian people are capable of changing Syria for the better — from the inside.

“We were able to change. We became people capable of self-reliance. We now possess organizations for civil society. We now have initiatives, we now have movement. We are no longer what we used to be before,” Fares said in an interview.

Fares was 46 years old when he was assassinated on Nov 23, 2018 along with Radio Fresh reporter Hamoud Juneid, underscoring the danger posed to every activist inside Syria. Not only do Syrians face the violence of Assad’s regime, but also that of extremist groups like ISIS and al-Nusra (known now as Fatah al-Sham). Assad wages war against his own people under the narrative that he is fighting these terrorist groups.

Maintaining something as democratic as Radio Fresh is dangerous work, as a civil society is a direct threat to Assad’s rule. The Radio Fresh offices were burned down and bombarded twice by Assad’s regime, and raided twice by ISIS. Fares himself survived multiple assassination attempts, as well as being kidnapped and tortured. However, he never stopped promoting democracy and nonviolent resistance. He was there for the very first protests in Syria and continued to be a voice of the revolution without wavering or succumbing to government threats.

Radio Fresh continues its operation despite the dangers, but its biggest hurdle is a lack of funding. The station used to be partly funded by the U.S. State Department, but that funding has since been suspended under the Trump administration (as has other humanitarian funding in Syria). This has left the station’s employees without the salary they need to support themselves and their families. In June of 2018, before his death, Fares wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post responding to the funding cuts. “Without funding and support for independent voices like Radio Fresh, the world may witness the birth of another Islamic State in Syria, and that will create a long-term security threat to the United States,” he said.

Young children growing up in Syria have known only violence and war in their lifetimes. Without voices like those of Radio Fresh promoting civility, peace, and democracy, those children would be left exposed solely to the messages spread by terrorist groups and the Assad regime, setting a dangerous precedent for the new generations that will lead Syria. Fares helped lay the groundwork for the civil society he was confident would challenge dictatorship and create a better Syria for its children.

“Assad, ISIS, and all extremists choose to kill, choose death. We, the people of Syria, we choose life and we want to love. There is nothing prettier than a flower that defies death, chaos, and destruction. It blooms and radiates hope.”

2017 Oslo Freedom Forum


Over the years the West’s interest in the Syrian revolution and conflict has waxed and waned, but the concern overall has been minimal at best and nonexistent at worst. It perhaps peaked during Assad’s (with Russia’s help, of course) all-out assault on Eastern Aleppo in 2016. Like all things, that story faded from our news cycle and people quietly went back to ignoring the country’s war. However, it very much continued and now, Assad’s regime forces along with Russia are bombing the northwestern city of Idlib and its surrounding region. In fact, as I was writing this piece, the Syria Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, were tweeting about an attack on Kafranbel using high-explosive missiles and cluster bombs. According to the White Helmets, they are going on the 20th day of a widespread bombardment on Idlib and Hama by Russian warplanes and Syrian regime forces.

“A rose among the rubble. Russian and Assad regime can blow up our civil defense center, but they can’t stop us from serving our people. Here, a White Helmet volunteer sends love and peace in the aftermath of a direct strike of their center in Kafranbel.” –White Helmets

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