SYRIA

Why was Syria's 'cartoon' protest town targeted by Russian warplanes?

A photo of a cartoon published online by Raed Fares following the Russian strikes.
A photo of a cartoon published online by Raed Fares following the Russian strikes.

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For more than a week, Russian pilots have been carrying out raids across Syria. Russia insists that its warplanes are only striking 'terrorist targets’ in Syria. But on Wednesday, Russian jets set their sights on Kafranbel, and pounded the town that has become a byword for peaceful protest thanks to its satirical cartoonists.

Kafranbel is a small town in the province of Idlib held by Syrians who oppose the regime, and is managed by a civilian administration. Since the beginning of the uprising, the town has become famous worldwide for its weekly cartoons that spare neither the Syrian regime nor the country's extremist fighters. Ahmad Jalal is the man behind the cartoons that have drawn a global audience, thanks to social media.

But it's not unusual to see Raed Fares, head of the town's media centre, pitching in with his own ideas for the next satirical drawing. He also writes the banners that protesters have held aloft every week since demonstrations began back in 2011. Contacted by France 24, he expressed his bewilderment at the latest Russian strikes.

"Kafranbel is only run by civilians, there is absolutely no military presence here"

Last Thursday [Editor's note: October 1], the Russian air force bombed a Roman archaeological town not far from here that's called Shanshrah. But this Wednesday, at around 11 a.m., Russian warplanes carried out airstrikes right in the heart of our town. Altogether, six missiles landed one hundred or so metres from the hospital. Fortunately, there weren't any victims.

We know that they were Russian planes because a worker for the local radio station, using special equipment, tapped into the radio frequency that the pilots were using just before the strikes were carried out. Another indication is that there were four planes, and Russian planes always fly in formations of four. When Syrian jets bomb us, we tend to see only one plane flying alone in the sky.

In this region, Russian planes have targeted brigades fighting for the Free Syrian Army - particularly those backed by the United States, like Fursan al-Haq [Editor's note: “The Knights of Justice”] and Liwa' Suqour Jabal [Editor's note: “The Mountain Hawks”]. They're stationed in the highlands not far from here.

But they've also targeted civilians. In the space of a few days, they've attacked four hospitals, notably in Balyun, al-Abir, and Jabal al-Zawiya. In Jisr al-Shughur, they also hit a mosque.

"We're stuck between a rock and a hard place"

Why are they targeting this area when the Islamic State group is a hundred or so kilometres from here, in Raqqa and Aleppo? Jabhat al-Nusra [Editor's note: The Syrian branch of Al Qaeda] is also active in the region. But its fighters are in the mountains, not in the towns and cities. Kafranbel is managed only by civilians; there is absolutely no military presence here.

The jihadists fighting for Islamic State group and al-Nusra are our enemies. They've tried to assassinate me several times. In January 2014, two IS fighters snuck into the town and shot at me near my home. I spent three months in hospitals in Turkey and in the United States. In October 2014, they laid a mine near my car. Two months later, I was kidnapped and held hostage for three days by Jabhat al-Nusra. On January 17, 2015, fighters from the same group assaulted and pillaged the offices belonging to the local radio station, a feminist NGO, and the media centre. They stole our equipment. Whether it's through radio, satirical cartoons, or banners, we've never stopped criticising them.

We're stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, there's the Syrian regime and its Russian allies, and on the other, the extremists. But we won't give up. We'll do what we've been doing ever since the revolution began: keeping up the resistance with our slogans and satirical drawings. So we'll keep protesting every Saturday. But we must be careful. We'll avoid gathering in public squares and opt instead for small alleyways, where reconnaissance planes can't see us.