The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion U.S. funding cuts are jeopardizing a Syrian information lifeline — and making life easier for ISIS

A child is rescued from rubble following Syrian and Russian air strikes in the rebel-held town of Nawa in southern Syria on Tuesday. (Ahmad al-Msalam/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

Correction: An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly reported on Radio Fresh’s sources of financial support. The group does not receive financial assistance from War Child. This version has been updated.

Raed Fares is a citizen journalist, activist and civil society leader from Kefranbel, Syria. To hear more about Raed’s story, view his Oslo Freedom Forum talk here.

On May 17, I went into work at Radio Fresh, the independent radio I founded to report the truth about Syria. I sat down at my computer, pulled up my email, and had a rude awakening: a State Department contact had written to inform me “with great regret, that the United States has decided to stop funding projects like Radio Fresh” — effective as of June 30.

Radio Fresh is one of the many organizations affected by President Trump’s decision to freeze $200 million in “stabilization aid” to humanitarian groups in Syria. Although the administration recently released funds to the White Helmets (the Syrian volunteer search and rescue group) in response to a broad media outcry, he is still withholding money for civil society groups and independent news organizations like ours.

Trump’s aim is to bring an immediate end to U.S. involvement in Syria. But I have bad news for him: 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.

I started Radio Fresh in 2013 as a local station based in my hometown of Kefranbel to reach audiences in Idlib, Aleppo, and Hamah provinces. It was crucial that the Syrian people receive independent news about what was going on in their country, and there was no other station of that kind at that time.

As a journalist and activist, I felt I had a duty to counter the fundamentalist narratives that are spreading among people who have no other source for hope in our war-torn homeland. For five consecutive years, we have broadcast news and promoted nonviolence. Listeners noticed our reliable coverage, and we quickly became the most popular independent voice, especially in liberated areas.

Radio Fresh is more than a radio station: We provide media training for more than 2,500 young men and women. We are helping them become the citizen-journalists that are so badly needed in Syria. We employ more than 600 people, giving them the opportunity to think critically and join the nonviolent movement. That means we are directing people to be citizens that have the skills to contribute to a democratic society. We’ve also been the main source of on-the-ground information for the international press, which hesitates to send its reporters to conflict zones like Idlib. If it weren’t for us and other independent voices, terrorists would be the only source of information about Syria locally and internationally.

For that reason, the terrorist groups (and the regime) see us as a direct threat. Radio Fresh’s office has been raided by Islamic State militants several times (and bombarded by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad twice). Employees have been abducted and harassed. In 2014, I almost lost my life when two armed men opened fire at me and shot me in the chest. It took me four months to recover. Two other times, terrorists hid bombs in my car. Between 2014 and 2015, I was abducted four times by al-Qaeda militants and released a few days later after being tortured.

But we haven’t given up. We’re still broadcasting our independent coverage of the Syrian revolution, countering terrorism and advocating tolerance. But now we face a much more serious existential threat. When we close up shop, that shutdown won’t be because of Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin, al-Qaeda, or even the Islamic State – it will be because of Trump’s decision.

The liberated zones where we operate are especially vulnerable to power struggles, and supporting civil society and media groups here is absolutely crucial. 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. We’ve also seen cases — in Afghanistan and in Iraq (where the Islamic State began) – where a lack of civil society-building undermines democracy.

The Syrian conflict escalated in part because terrorists are winning an ideological battle for Syria’s soul. The people in villages like Kefranbel, especially the children, have been living in an environment of war, hate, violence and scenes of bloodshed for more than six years. In the absence of peaceful, democratic political voices, terrorists have been able to convince Syria’s vulnerable youth that violence and destruction can somehow pave the way to stability. Civil society groups and independent media are working tirelessly to oppose these messages – in ways that resonate with local audiences. Syria’s democratic future relies on our success.

Trump is giving his voters the impression that the United States has defeated the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. But the terrorists are still here, and so is their ideology. In the northwest region of Syria, in my hometown of Kefranbel, I’ve seen with my own eyes how al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups that were once scattered by U.S.-backed forces are regrouping and recruiting fearful and disenfranchised youth.

Without groups like Radio Fresh to provide alternative messages, another generation will take up arms to found the Islamic State’s second and third editions. We receive financial support and other resources from international groups like the Human Rights Foundation, but it is not enough. We depend on assistance from the United States. If the Trump administration does not release the remaining budget allocated for humanitarian groups, Americans will have to spend billions of dollars more to protect their allies and even themselves from new threats.