After killing, defiant Syria town determined to protest on

Gunmen may have killed their most charismatic activist, but Syrians in Kafranbel are determined to keep the northwestern town's revolutionary spirit alive. (AFP)
Updated 29 November 2018
0

After killing, defiant Syria town determined to protest on

  • The gunning down of Raed Fares was the latest blow to what remains of the dwindling civil society movement that rose up against President Bashar Assad in 2011
  • Seven years into a brutal civil war and is controlled by a powerful alliance led by former Al-Qaeda militants

KAFRANBEL: Gunmen may have killed their most charismatic activist, but Syrians in Kafranbel are determined to keep the northwestern town’s revolutionary spirit alive.
The gunning down of Raed Fares on Friday was the latest blow to what remains of the dwindling civil society movement that rose up against President Bashar Assad in 2011.
“We lost Raed Fares but he represented an idea that will not die,” 26-year-old activist Abdallah Al-Dani said, standing in front of a wall of graffiti calling for freedom.
Seven years into a brutal civil war, Kafranbel lies in the last major rebel bastion in the country, and is controlled by a powerful alliance led by former Al-Qaeda militants.
But its walls are still daubed with brightly colored murals, reflecting the town’s worldwide renown as a bastion of protest throughout the uprising.
Kafranbel, up in the province of Idlib on the Turkish border, was one of the first to join in as revolutionary fervor spread across Syria in 2011.
“It was the spark for the revolution in the north, a candle in oppressed northern Syria,” said Dani, wearing a winter jacket to keep out the cold.
A town of some 20,000 people, Kafranbel soon became known for the often humorous signs in English and Arabic that its residents held up at weekly demonstrations.
“Down with the regime — and the opposition,” a sign at one of the town’s protests famously read in 2011.
“Down with the Arab and the Islamic nation... Down with the (UN) Security Council... Down with the world... Down with everything.” 


As protests spiralled into war, in 2012 Kafranbel was rocked by fighting between regime fighters and defectors from Assad’s army, soon slipping out of the government’s control.
“I have a dream. Let freedom ring from Kafranbel,” said one sign that year in English, playing on the town’s name and echoing the words of Martin Luther King.
Another poster the same year complained of congested skies.
“We demand a policeman be appointed to regulate war plane traffic,” it said in Arabic, signed “Liberated Kafranbel.”
At Christmas approached, Kafranbel sent a message to the pope.
“Merry Christmas from Syria, the land where Assad killed Santa Claus,” it said in bold black Roman letters.
By 2015, Kafranbel was part of a large region under the control of opposition forces.
As the civil war became increasingly complex, involving world powers and jihadists, the clamour coming out of Kafranbel targeted all sides of the conflict.
“Islamic State (group) in Syria and Iraq: We didn’t liberate it so you could rule it,” the town’s people raged, referring to land beyond regime control.
Activist Bilal Bayush says people may have started protesting the Damascus regime, but they were soon also challenging powerful militants.
These include IS, but also the militant-led Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) alliance that rules more than half of Idlib, including Kafranbel.
“Kafranbel has stood up against IS since 2013, and it also holds demonstrations in solidarity with activists being held by HTS,” Bayush said.

Fares, who died aged 46, was among those to have run-ins with the militants after he set up a popular radio station named Fresh FM in 2013.
When HTS tried to ban him from broadcasting music two years ago, he fought back with barnyard noises.
“He decided to air the noises of animals such as birds or cockerels instead,” says Bayush.
Daesh fighters raided the office on several occasions, he wrote in the Washington Post in July, and the regime also bombarded it.
Fares said he was shot at by armed men in 2014, and then abducted several times by the group now known as HTS.
Often in creative ways, Kafranbel’s people have stood up for what they believe is right.
In 2014, the town’s women sewed together a 75-meter-long version of the three-star flag of the uprising, and paraded it down its streets.
Even following the killing of Fares with fellow activist Hamod Jnaid, which sparked a flurry of tributes on social media, the town’s residents say they will keep up the fight.
After almost eight years of war, “our determination has only increased,” said Bayush, despite admitting he was a little fearful over a recent spate of killings and kidnappings in the province.
“We’ll carry on until the regime falls and we get the rights we have been demanding from the beginning,” he said.
On a recent foggy day, 21-year-old activist Mohammad Allush explained what the town meant to him.
“Kafranbel is revolution — revolution against oppression, whatever that may be.”


Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces new threat from former allies

Updated 55 min 5 sec ago
0

Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces new threat from former allies

  • Former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu and ex-economy minister Ali Babacan have both made statements this month criticizing Turkey’s current trajectory
  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has downplayed the threat

ANKARA: Following losses in key cities this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan now risks losing more voters as former allies stick their head above the parapet and appear to be on the verge of creating new parties.
Former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu and ex-economy minister Ali Babacan have both made statements this month criticizing Turkey’s current trajectory under Erdogan.
Rumors have swirled in Ankara for months that Babacan and Davutoglu may establish their own political parties to challenge the Islamic-rooted AKP that has dominated Turkish politics this century.
On July 8, Babacan, who is credited with overseeing Turkey’s economic boom during the AKP’s first decade in power, dealt the first blow when he resigned from the party.
He claimed Turkey needed a “new vision” and cited “deep differences” over policy, hinting a new party — or “new effort” — was “inevitable.”
With double-digit inflation, slower growth and a weakened lira, many hope Babacan will be the answer to Turkey’s economic woes and an alternative to Erdogan.
Ten days after Babacan, Davutoglu gave an interview broadcast live online in which he appeared to suggest he would be ready to set up a new party.
Erdogan has downplayed the threat but also warned Babacan against splitting the “ummah” — using the Arabic word for the Muslim community.
Experts say the president will not quietly accept these challenges.
“Erdogan is likely to combat any threat he sees to his personalized rule,” said Lisel Hintz, assistant professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University.
She pointed to the jailing of Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas who had vehemently opposed Erdogan, and the ongoing trials of civil society leaders and AKP opponents.
Turkey has been to the polls eight times in just five years, but now any new party will have potentially until the next elections in 2023 to create momentum and attract voters.
When he announced he was standing down as prime minister in 2016 after two years, Davutoglu vowed never to criticize Erdogan in public.
That promise lay in tatters this week as he spoke online for three hours, saying he would remain within the AKP for now, but that: “If there is no other option, a (new) party must be set up.”
For now, it appears unlikely that Davutoglu will join forces with other splitters from the AKP, having been a fairly divisive figure himself in the past.
However, there have been reports that former president and co-founder of the AKP, Abdullah Gul, could act as an “honorary chairman” to a party led by Babacan.
It had been mooted that Gul would run against Erdogan in last year’s presidential elections, but he never came forward.
Erdogan criticized Babacan after his resignation, saying they disagreed over many issues, including interest rates, which the president controversially believes must be kept low to reduce inflation.
When asked if he was disappointed by Babacan, Davutoglu and Gul, Erdogan responded with evident exasperation: “For the love of Allah, should this question be asked? If one is not disappointed with them, who would one be disappointed with?”
But he said previous MPs had left the party and been largely forgotten.
The AKP came to power after the Turkish economy suffered a severe financial crisis in 2001, and needed an International Monetary Fund loan to emerge from the embers.
Eighteen years later, Turkey is again in an economic slump.
Inflation is at 15.7 percent; the rate of unemployment is 13 percent while the economy contracted by 2.6 percent in the first quarter of 2019.
According to Hintz, the success of any party launched by Babacan will “likely depend on the extent to which it offers concrete plans for tackling Turkey’s economic problems and social divides.”
She added that Babacan had a “shot at galvanizing Turkey’s center-right, particularly given widespread disillusion surrounding the personal enrichment of AKP leaders while Turkey’s economy slides further toward crisis.”
Erdogan and the AKP, set up in 2001, have won every general election since coming to power in 2002.
But after 25 years of the AKP and its predecessors running Istanbul, the country’s economic powerhouse is now in the hands of the opposition, despite a controversial push by the ruling party to order a re-run of the vote.
Erdogan still commands widespread loyalty, particularly in the provinces, said Emre Erdogan, professor of political science at Istanbul Bilgi University, and no relation to the president.
But he said any new challenger could be “destructive” to Erdogan’s chances at the next election, given that presidential candidates must win over 50 percent of the vote.