To Syria’s Revolutionaries, Assad Isn’t Looking So Bad After All

With their revolution hijacked by Islamists, many Syrian rebels are rethinking their stance against the man they've been trying to overthrow

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Vahid Salemi / AP

Syrian President Bashar Assad during a meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran on Aug. 19, 2009

It all started because Souad Nawfal wanted to wear pants. Every day, the 40-year-old schoolteacher turned antiregime activist would go stand in front of the headquarters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in the rebel-controlled city of Raqqa to protest the al-Qaeda affiliates’ harsh tactics in her hometown. She hoisted placards calling for an end to injustice, for an end to oppression. First they ignored her. Then they told everyone else to ignore her, and then they tried to beat her. Still she persevered. “A girl all by herself facing the Islamic State,” she sniffs in a recent video posted on Vimeo. “Talk about a state! It’s more like a small gang that takes advantage of people’s fear.” But the small gang was powerful, and when ISIS started threatening her life, Nawfal finally had to flee for Turkey, where she is now hiding in a safe house, wondering what happened to Syria’s revolution.

She is not alone. Hundreds of activists have watched in desperation as the revolution they launched to overthrow the repressive regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad threatens to deliver their country into the hands of equally oppressive Islamist radicals determined to turn Syria into an Islamic caliphate. “A lot of former activists are now saying to me, ‘When the choice is between Daish and Assad, I am going for Assad,’” says Randa Slim, a Syria expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, using the Syrian Arabic word for ISIS. To be sure, not all the rebel groups share the same ideology, but the most effective fighting groups, with their ranks filled by foreign jihadists, funded by private donors in the Gulf and backed by al-Qaeda, are gaining ground. As they grow, they are squeezing out the activists who dreamed of a Syria founded on democratic representation, freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

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In March 2011, Nawfal joined the Syrian revolutionaries protesting the repressive regime of President Assad. When Raqqa fell to the rebels in April 2013, she was one of the first to cheer. But then she got a closer look at the rebels. Raqqa had been taken over by al-Qaeda sympathizers who immediately started implementing their harsh interpretation of Islamic law. Music, photography and cigarettes were forbidden. Women were instructed to cover their heads and dress “modestly” — even though Nawfal wears the tightly wrapped headscarf of a conservative Muslim, the rebels objected to her wearing trousers. Anyone who objected to their ideology was tried, and punished, as an apostate. Dissidents disappeared. Nawfal started wondering what, exactly, she had been liberated from. So she started protesting and made a series of anti-ISIS videos.

In one she lambasts ISIS members in Raqqa for being so preoccupied by the fact she wears trousers to protest, while they conceal their identities with scarves and balaclavas. “I don’t ask why you are dressed the Afghan way,” she says. “How can pants be sinful and not the mask? They kidnap, they steal, they arrest. And no one can complain about anything because we don’t know who they are!” From her safe house in Turkey, she told Saudi Arabia’s al-Arabiya TV on Dec. 4, “I was standing against all those abuses that ISIS was carrying out. In terms of abductions, arrests [and] accusations, its behavior was the same as the regime’s.”

Her gender may have won her some time; scores of male antiregime activists who tried to take on ISIS have been thrown in prison, kidnapped, tortured or disappeared. Frustration with the rebels has driven many activists to exile while others have simply given up on the revolution. Some are even rethinking the revolution entirely.

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Like Nawfal, 29-year-old Abu Samer from Tartous on the Mediterranean coast was an early supporter of the push to overthrow Assad. Now he thinks it was a mistake. Arming the rebels, he says, using a nickname to protect his safety, was akin to arming the next generation of sectarian dictators. In the early days of the revolution, he and his fellow rebels derided peaceful opposition groups as cowards for their attempt to effect change through dialogue and protest alone. “It turns out they were right. Arming the revolution brought ISIS to Syria,” he says with regret. He still believes that Assad has destroyed Syria, but fears that Assad’s overthrow may usher in something worse. The only way Assad can be defeated now, he says, is “by the armed Islamic groups, which are worse than the Assad regime.”

As a former revolutionary, he is loath to admit that the best solution in the end may have to be compromise. Still, he sees no alternative. The upcoming peace talks in Geneva, slated for Jan. 22, give him some hope. Assad, he says, is a criminal that must eventually leave power. Nonetheless, “Syrians in the opposition and in the Free Army [one of the early groups made up largely of defected government soldiers] should negotiate with the regime and accept a solution that leads to a government consisting of the regime and the opposition.” It’s not a popular conviction, he says, but it is the most practical. “Without that, the whole country will be destroyed.”

Even as ISIS forced her into exile, Nawfal says she will never compromise with the regime to defeat them. “You don’t fight injustice with even bigger injustice.” ISIS, she tells TIME via Skype, “is digging a hole in the body of the revolution to inject into it malignant diseases which harm the people and only the people. We are forging ahead until we bring down the regime and, with it, ISIS, God willing.” But the longer the war lasts, the fewer the numbers forging alongside her.

— With reporting by Hania Mourtada / Beirut; a special correspondent for TIME / Tartous, Syria

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