Anti-Syrian government activist Raed Fares, in a photo released by the Syrian anti-government activist group Kafranbl News. (AP)

 One of the most famous activists in Syria was assassinated by gunmen, according to associates, underscoring the mortal threats facing a dwindling pool of dissidents who still openly oppose government and extremist forces there. 

Raed Fares, 46, was the founder of Radio Fresh, a channel broadcasting news across Syria’s once sprawling opposition-held areas to warn of incoming airstrikes and counter the messages of militants who had come to dominate areas that fell from government control after a 2011 uprising.

For this, he had become a hunted man. Writing in The Washington Post earlier this year, Fares said he had survived at least one assassination attempt. He had also been abducted by al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate on multiple occasions. “But we haven’t given up. We’re still broadcasting our independent coverage of the Syrian revolution, countering terrorism and advocating tolerance,” he wrote. 

Photographs shared online Friday showed the activist’s body lying on a hospital stretcher. An eyewitness said armed men had sprayed bullets into his car as it stopped outside an apartment block in Kafranbel, a town in the opposition enclave of Idlib, killing Fares and his colleague Hammoud al-Juneid. 

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed during Syria’s seven-year war, and proponents of peaceful change have been targeted by all sides. Inside government jails, thousands of them have died as a result of execution, torture or neglect. Extremist groups have also attacked or arrested activists who contradict their narrative and oppose their tactics. 

As the Trump administration pared back spending on Syria, initiatives such as Radio Fresh also lost crucial funds. 

“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 wrote in June. “Without groups like Radio Fresh to provide alternative messages, another generation will take up arms.”

The identities of his killers were not immediately clear Friday, but the attack intensified a growing climate of fear in Idlib, Syria’s most northern province and the country’s final rebel bastion. Hundreds of people have been killed in recent months as armed groups turn on each other and activists are targeted for their work, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Ali Dandoush, an activist who worked with Fares and Juneid, said their car had been followed from the Radio Fresh office to a friend’s apartment. As they pulled up, so did three gunmen. 

“They just started shooting,” he said. “We tried so hard to get them to the hospital but Juneid had already stopped breathing. Fares died as we arrived.”

Colleagues said Fares received so many death threats in recent months that he had stopped sleeping, as he had for years, at the radio station’s office, and instead retreated at night to more rural areas.

Friends said they had begged Fares to leave. “Tens of times I’ve asked him,” wrote Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairman of the Syrian Network for Human Rights monitoring group, on Twitter on Friday. “He would simply answer: ‘What can they do? Kill me? [Well] let them kill me. I’m not going to leave and leave them the country.’ ”

Zakaria Zakaria contributed to this report from Istanbul.