As the head of the Syria’s Interim government, I meet a lot of American officials and journalists. I’m always asked the same perplexing question: Isn’t interfering in the Syrian civil war a fool’s errand? Won’t weakening ISIS help Assad and won’t weakening Assad help ISIS? Ostensibly, this seems a reasonable argument if the war in Syria was being waged between radical Sunni groups and a militant Shia regime.
But unfortunately, Syrian democrats have been persecuted by both sides of this equation. Syrians who believe in freedom and equality begged the regime to reform so that we could transition to a pluralistic, democratic state. But our calls fell on deaf ears, and years of slaughter commenced. The regime ignored our warnings that the status quo was unsustainable and that Syria would end up as a failed state.
As a former political prisoner in Syria I have met with many young, well qualified and intellectual Syrian men and women over the years. They always complained about the lack of opportunities in Syria. They said that Syria is a country that is governed by loyalties rather than by merit and qualifications.
In March of 2011, after decades of oppression, Syria exploded in popular protest. The leaders of the opposition believed in democracy, human rights and non-violence. Hundreds of thousands of youth marched in every Syrian neighborhood, chanting for freedom and democracy. They did not chant against America or the West. The previous U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, visited the city of Hama, where he was welcomed with roses by thousands of Syrian civilians. These protesters faced the bullets of the regime unarmed and with bare chests.
The Assad regime replied to their peaceful protests with astounding brutality. It tortured thousands of people to death. It used terrifying violence to murder its enemies–peaceful youth among them. We tried to contain the reaction of the people and attempted to build a national army to defend civilians. But we received no serious international support. When the regime used chemical weapons to kill our people, Syrian outrage could no longer be contained.
Despite very limited resources, the Free Syrian Army defeated the Assad regime in many battles. But the lack of sustainable support gave radicals the opportunity to enter the fray. Thousands of foreign fighters fled to Syria, where their first targets were not the brutal forces of the Assad government but the moderate Free Syrian Army and the opposition.
Many rebel leaders were killed and arrested. Opposition leaders were executed and kidnapped. Moderate Syrian groups were fighting on many fronts–against a regime supported by Russia and Iran and other, well-trained, well-financed radical groups. Meanwile the world watched silently, and did nothing.
These radicals captured large parts of Syria, using both carrots and sticks. They terrorized people with public beheadings and crucifixions while simultaneously providing food and shelter for desperate refugees. Syrians under ISIS control faced a bitter choice: pledge allegiance to ISIS or flee to FSA-controlled regions that were being targeted daily by the regime’s air-power, or more recently by the Russian Air Force. Or they could flee the country and risk getting killed that way.
This is a bleak picture, but there is still light at the end of the tunnel. Thousands of Syrians are working day and night to achieve their dream of a democratic Syria, free of both Assad and the theocratic thugs. Despite extremely limited support from outside the country, these brave Syrian patriots have proven to the world that they can stand their ground in fighting off both the Assad regime and its terrorist foes.
Today the danger of ISIS and other groups is not confined to Syria. Hundreds of foreign jihadists who hold European and American citizenships are currently being trained in Syria. They have set their sights on fighting “infidels,” which includes not only moderate Syrians, but also most of the West.
Moderate Syrians and the West need to work together because we face the same enemy. Fighting Assad and the extremists that have filled the void is critical for a peaceful Syria and a peaceful world.
The first step of concerned nations must be imposing a no-fly zone that prevents the regime from dropping barrel bombs and where refugees can live in peace. Air power alone cannot defeat ISIS, but a no-fly zone would do much to protect moderate forces and refugees.
A no-fly zone would also help protect the thousands of women who are being butchered by the regime and stoned to death by ISIS. It would allow them to once again stand at the helm of a noble fight for freedom. Women, who once had senior roles leading this revolution, have been systematically cut down by the forces of extremism overtaking Syria. Today, rather than leading the fight for freedom, they are being repressed more than ever.
Working together, we can defeat both the Assad regime and ISIS. This is the only hope for a peaceful and stable Syria. Conscience demands that we do something before a whole nation is lost.
This post originally appeared on Movements. Ahmad Tohme is the head of the Syrian Interim Government and a former political prisoner. Movements connects human rights activists from dictatorships with people around the world who can help them.