On a trip last month to the Turkish-Syrian border, I met an impressive young Syrian opposition journalist named Adnan Hadad, who had just fled Aleppo because he was being targeted by both the regime and al-Qaida militants.
When talks finally began in Switzerland on Wednesday between the Syrian regime and opposition, a testy exchange between Hadad and Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoubi caught my eye. At a news conference, Hadad asked Zoubi to comment on the deadly barrel bombs being dropped by government planes on civilian neighborhoods in Aleppo. According to the New York Times, Zoubi snapped back: "This is the kind of question you ask if you support the terrorist groups."
This exchange illustrates why the Geneva II talks are headed for failure — and why terrorist groups will grow stronger in Syria the longer Bashar al-Assad holds power.
Zoubi’s remarks show the regime’s determination to divert the talks away from any discussion of replacing Assad. Instead, Assad’s minions will push the narrative that the West needs him to fight jihadi terrorists. What Zoubi won’t admit is that the regime’s murder and torture of civilians fueled the jihadi threat.
In the early months of the rebellion, the regime crushed hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters who sought political reform, not revolution. Since then, its tactics have been gruesome. An archive of 55,000 photographs, which recently emerged from Assad’s jails, shows 11,000 starved and tortured corpses. Smuggled out by a police photographer who defected, the images have not yet been fully authenticated, but they replicate endless reports of similar crimes against thousands of detainees in regime dungeons, related by survivors or documented by human rights groups.
Assad has left no space for civic rebels such as Hadad, who seek neither dictatorship nor radical Islam.
Far from being a terrorist supporter, Hadad represents Syria’s youthful best and brightest, whose future is being destroyed by the fighting. He left a safe and solid career as a financial adviser in Dubai in 2012 to become an opposition media activist in Aleppo, where rebel journalists risk their lives to report war crimes against civilians by the regime — or by Islamists. He fled Aleppo after the al-Qaida affiliate Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) declared war on media activists and started kidnapping and killing them.
Over coffee last month at the Sirehan Hotel in the Turkish border city of Gaziantep, Hadad explained why Islamist militias — and more radical jihadis such as ISIS — have grown so strong.
"When the revolution started," Hadad told me, "and hundreds of thousands came to the streets, people might have agreed on Assad’s leaving after 2014 (when elections are supposedly scheduled)." But, he adds, "after they saw the tanks, and the helicopters and massacres and the sectarian acts," people felt they must "kill or be killed."
Under siege, he said, Syrians tolerated various shades of Islamist militias — more mainstream or even extreme hard-liners — because they arrived with money, guns, and good organization. When the West failed to provide aid to non-Islamist militias, those defending their villages against regime soldiers had few choices.
"People needed guns and that’s where the Islamists came in," said Hadad. "When people have no hope, the thing you believe in, the only thing you have left, is faith."
Indeed, the regime has largely refrained from going after ISIS, some of whose leaders have old ties to Syrian intelligence. As cynics point out, the regime welcomes the rise of radical groups in order to demonstrate to Syrians that Assad is the better choice. "The regime releases the most dangerous Islamists from their prisons," says Hadad. "Then you start a religious war."
There you have it. The Assad regime will use the Islamist threat to reject compromise at Geneva, while jihadis grow stronger in Syria. Backed by Moscow and Tehran, the Syrian leader will stonewall peace talks and try to hold fake elections.
With U.S. President Barack Obama firmly committed to a passive position on Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry’s calls for an Assad exit will be ignored. The fighting may continue for years, as the country sinks into de facto partition.
Most tragic, the best and brightest of Syria’s educated youth, such as Hadad, will flee out of physical or economic desperation. Or they will wind up dead or tortured.
"Many Syrians want to end this war by any means, even if the country is divided," Hadad told me sadly. "But I don’t think a majority would accept Assad staying." In a world where the international community tolerates a leader responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, Hadad said, "I don’t think this global community is good for anything."
When it comes to Syria, he’s correct.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.