KAFRANBEL, Idlib Province—For almost two years, Kafranbel, a small town in Idlib, has enthralled Syrians with its witty banners and cartoons, delivering a message of peaceful defiance that made it an icon of the revolution. But today its residents are split: on one side, ardent supporters of a democratic Syria, on the other, those who seek an Islamic state led by extremists such as Jabhat Al Nusra.
Nestled among rocky hills 6 miles west of Maarat Alnuman, Kafranbel became the source for the most progressive messages of the Syrian revolution, delivered via English banners and clever cartoons. Many activists contributed to this effort, led by Raed Fares.
Fares, 40, took an eccentric path before finding his calling. After dropping out of medical school at Aleppo University after three years of study, he dabbled in a number of industries, trading agricultural land in Hama, opening a home appliance store in Kafranbel, working in a refrigerator factory in Lebanon, and finally launching a real estate office in Kafranbel in 2006.
“I’ve never been able to hold a job for more than a few years,” he said. “I need change.”
As a former mid-level member of the Baath Party, Fares irked his superiors by criticizing the practices of the intelligence services, the feared Mukhabarat. He questioned why some citizens were denied government jobs because of distant ties to the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
“Agents would investigate people who were children in 1982 [when the Brotherhood was crushed in Hama], and would routinely extract $10 to $20 in bribes from the people they questioned,” he said.
When the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt successfully toppled their dictators, Fares and some of the lawyers that frequented his real estate office were inspired. “We sprayed anti-regime slogans in town in February 2011, but didn’t think to document it with photos or video,” he said.
Daraa’s movement provided an opening to protest, but Raed and his fellow activists couldn’t muster the courage to call for freedom on March 25, 2011, the first Friday when protests went national in Syria.
“That night, a pro-Assad rally was held in Kafranbel, but that only increased our resolve,” he said. The following Friday Kafranbel joined the protest movement, and in subsequent weeks, Fares began tailoring messages to an international audience.
“We started writing signs in English in May 2011 because we felt that the international community would care more about human rights than Arabs, so we wanted to address them in a common language,” he said.
Cartoons were introduced in August 2011, executed by a technician at a dental clinic who sketched as a hobby. Syrians took notice, and foreign media regularly featured Kafranbel’s signs.
Protests, and the signs, are meticulously planned, and every detail has a meaning. Posters, for example, carry datelines that tell the story of the conflict, starting with just Kafranbel, to Occupied Kafranbel and then Liberated Kafranbel after the army was expelled from the town in August.
“We switched again seven weeks ago to the Syrian Revolution Kafranbel,” Fares said. “Most of the world has forgotten that we are in a revolution, and call it a civil war. We are reminding them of what is actually happening on the ground.”
Fares discusses the overall message with Ahmad, the cartoonist, each week, deciding what events they should comment on and what demands they have for the world and the political opposition abroad. “A few weeks ago we decided to devote the protest to rising sectarian rhetoric,” he said. “We always have one sign or image against sectarianism.”
Islamic extremism is the top priority for Fares and his secular-minded peers these days. He met with a local emir of Jabhat Al Nusra, which the U.S. designated a terrorist organization with ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq, a few weeks ago, and the emir said he wanted to raise their flag at Kafranbel’s protests. Fares refused, and now the town holds two protests each week.
“They don’t like being called extremists but the truth is they are,” Fares said. “They want to impose their views on everyone. They see Islam through a pinhole and I see it through a window.”
Fares said Jabhat Al Nusra was gaining followers because it’s organized, and has an established hierarchy that holds its members accountable, unlike the disorganized civilian activists and the Free Syrian Army. Nusra also has access to weapons, and is delivering much needed humanitarian aid, which the secular opposition can’t match due to a lack of resources.
The confrontation in Kafranbel today is in the realm of ideas, and Fares hopes that it will remain that way. Nusra and other extremist groups have a “totalitarian vision for Syria that is the same as the regime’s and I fought the regime,” he said. Nusra and its followers deny the existence of a revolution in Syria, Fares said, claiming that revolution is “just a word invented by Che Guevara, and that we are in jihad. I’m not a jihadist, I’m a revolutionary.”
But Fares says Nusra hasn’t replicated the Syrian military’s brutal tactics, occupying towns, burning homes and killing civilians. So, Fares said, the secular movement in Kafranbel will resist the Islamist in the same way they faced the Assad regime, using nonviolent action.
After nearly two years of constant struggle, this challenge appears even more daunting than rising up against Assad’s entrenched police state.