WASHINGTON — When Raed Fares, a well-known Syrian activist, began commissioning posters to protest Bashar al-Assad, he included Iranian leaders in the line-up.
Now, over two and a half years and tens of thousands of deaths later, Fares is ready to see Iranian officials sit down alongside those seeking a negotiated end to Syria's war at peace talks in Geneva this month. If Assad's representatives are going to be at Geneva II, he argued, Iran may as well come too.
"The main criminal is at the table," Fares said, referring to Assad. "If the main criminal is at the table there's nothing we would object to having supporters of the criminal also at the table."
Fares is the brain behind one of the most creative protests to come out of the Syrian conflict —protest banners made in Kafranbel in Idlib province, where Fares is the head of the small town's media center. The banners have attracted worldwide attention over the course of the Syrian war for using American pop culture references, cartoons, and slogans in English, the better to reach a wider international audience.
Fares was in Washington on Monday as part of a "Voices of Hope" tour with another activist, Razan Ghazzawi, seeking to inject some hope into a demoralized Syrian-American community that sees little chance of regime change as rebel factions inside the country have begun fighting each other. He met with BuzzFeed at the Marriott in Arlington, Virginia, in a suit that he wore for the first time on his U.S. tour (he sticks to jeans, mostly — the better to run from the Syrian Army) which has so far included stops in Los Angeles, Michigan, and Ohio.
While Fares has been stateside, his hometown broke out in protest last week against The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the foreign Islamist group linked to al Qaeda. Photos on Twitter showed small groups of protesters in Kafranbel holding signs as larger protests took place in Aleppo. For the first time, the Free Syrian Army, the rebel force backed by the United States, launched an offensive against the al-Qaeda linked group.
Fares said the protest was bigger than it appeared.
"The protest was big, but it was just a few protesters who were chosen to be in the photo and they had their faces covered," he said. "There was a specific objective or message we wanted to send by having just a few protesters with their faces covered carrying the signs." Keeping the numbers low in the pictures "wasn't out of fear," Fares said.
He said that the protest was a weekly scheduled protest, and not coordinated with the FSA.
"Of course there's communication between me and the Free Syrian Army, there's ongoing communication between us," Fares said. "But the protest is a weekly protest scheduled for every Friday, it happens at that time every single Friday, so it was unrelated to the campaign."
News from Kafranbel poured in during Fares' U.S. tour. He'd heard that six activists from the town who had been kidnapped by ISIS fighters the week before had been released. Two others who had been kidnapped, he said, were found decapitated in a mass grave three kilometers outside Kafranbel on Monday, along with a child.
For Fares, the trip has been focused on getting the Syrian-American community's hopes up again as the war drags on with no indication that Assad will leave. We haven't given up, he argues; why should you?
"We found that many in Syrian-American diaspora had started to suffer from hopelessness and we wanted to let them know that us, the activists inside who are under daily bombardment, aerial bombardment, TNT bombardment — we haven't given up, we're continuing pushing forward with our revolution and we hope those in Syrian American diaspora can hear our message."
He plans to continue making protest signs and will start making more videos when he returns to Kafranbel, though his efforts have not succeeded at forcing the international community to help.
"The banners and the posters have sort of become a tradition, so now we do these every week because people have become used to them and we can't stop them anymore," he said. "People get used to every week, we come up with some new creative ideas and people get excited about that."
Fares has also met with State Department officials and some Senate staffers, including a staffer for Sen. Jeff Merkley, according to a Senate aide. Fares said the meetings "went well" but that "Some of them didn't have a precise understanding of exactly what is going on in Syria."
"We can't expect from them that there will be promises," Fares said. "Senators and others, they're not capable of making decisions on their own — they have to deal with others in order to come to decisions."
He's trying to get more support from the U.S. for the rebels they've said they are supporting: "The U.S. should accelerate and expedite the process of supporting the FSA to change the military situation in order to give the political transition a chance."
But he's open to the U.S. talking to other groups apart from the political opposition and its military wing.
"Without a doubt, if America wants to get involved in this kind of process and is inviting people to come to Geneva II with the knowledge that the Syrian opposition coalition doesn't have significant representation inside of Syria, in order to come to an agreement in Geneva II which can be binding somehow inside of Syria they need to be willing to talk to other groups, otherwise Geneva II isn't worth the ink it's written on," Fares said.
The U.S. has said it is open to dealing with the Islamic Front, one of the islamist rebel factions, as it prepares for scheduled January 22 talks in Geneva. Secretary of State John Kerry has even suggested that Iran could have some kind of role in the talks, though the State Department has said Iran cannot come unless it accepts the agreement from the first round.