Just days before the most recent Syrian peace talks in Geneva began, a report detailing “industrial-scale” killing in President Bashar al-Assad’s prisons revealed the nature of his government. Despite this setback, the regime continues to claim that it is only fighting terrorists.

While their rhetoric is convenient, the reality is that only one side of the Syrian negotiations is actively fighting al Qaeda – the opposition. Though Assad has the capacity to attack extremists, from the spring of 2011 until today he has chosen to target civilians instead.

During two weeks I just spent interviewing Syrians in the southern border towns of Turkey, I found nearly universal opposition to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the army of foreign jihadists backed by al Qaeda that has now taken over many liberated areas across Northern Syria.

Syrians decried ISIS’s brutal campaign to target aid workers, journalists, respected leaders and moderate clerics. They describe the dual terror of Assad’s airborne bombs and al Qaeda’s guns on the ground. Citizens risked their lives earlier this month to march in protest against ISIS, and the poorly-armed opposition began to push al Qaeda out of key parts of the north and reopen communities to aid.

Assad knew that the enemy of his enemy could be his friend, at least for now. His cynical but effective logic was that if he could convince the world he was fighting terrorists, we would live with his war crimes. He sowed the seeds for this in his widely mocked first speech addressing mass protests at the end of March, 2011. He then set to work making it more reality than rhetoric, releasing extremists from his own prisons to become the face of the opposition.