By Bassam Ishak

The last ISIS stronghold has now been claimed by our Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters in Baghouz, Syria. We can confidently say that the grand gunfights and deadly insurgencies are over — for now.

The military battle will now shift from reclaiming territory to fighting remaining sleeper cells. But the most challenging battle remains in the hearts and minds of the people. The ideological battle is far from over. If we do nothing to address the root causes of terrorism in the Middle East, it will again grow up in the forgotten spaces between inequality, hopelessness, and frustration. We need to support projects that lead to a new Middle East — one that favors equality, embraces diversity, and encourages empowerment.

Thousands of women — clothed head to toe in black — and the children of ISIS fighters have been streaming out of the final ISIS stronghold. Many of them were filmed still swearing allegiance to ISIS and the “caliphate,” insulting and even hurling rocks at journalists who are deemed as non-believers. Others simply weep, wearing their trauma heavily. Thousands of foreign ISIS fighters — mostly from outside Syria — have been captured and are unrepentant. An untold number are waiting in sleeper cells for their next move.

US officials have told Congress that they believe no senior ISIS officials had remained in Baghouz. Despite the supposed glory of dying in a holy war, ISIS senior officials decided to live to fight another day. “What we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization,” said General Joseph Votel, Commander of the US Central Command, as quoted in Newsweek and other publications, “but, in fact, a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and preservation of their capabilities …waiting for the right time for a resurgence.”

Although our SDF fighters have torn the ISIS flags down from their last strongholds and reclaimed the land that was stolen, ISIS is not gone and is not completely destroyed. If we do nothing to change their minds and hearts, many will reorganize, pick up their guns again, and attack.

The men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to battle ISIS are native Syrians — many Kurdish, but also Arabs, Syriacs, and more — fighting to reclaim their homeland. They fight for a Syria that is secular, multiethnic, and multireligious. These are the principles of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the SDF. We are a body of multiethnic political parties, political associations, civil society groups, and activists who call for democracy, the protection of individual freedoms, the empowerment of women, and religious freedom. We have allied with the United States for the purpose of liberating our homeland.

Most of the world knows us, the SDC, as the grisly warriors combating terrorists in Syria. But few are aware that our inspired democratic model is now the governance structure that runs the Syrian region east of the Euphrates river, which is one-third of the country — providing government services to include education, infrastructure repair, local policing, water, electricity, and sanitization services.

As a young Syrian and native Syriac Christian, I grew up in a totalitarian Baathist Syria, in a climate of oppression, persecution, and marginalization. Under the Baath regime, Kurds, Turkmen, Syriacs, and other Syrian ethnicities are all considered Arabs. All children, including non-Arabs, are limited to studying an Arabic Baathist regime curriculum. The constitution specifies only the Muslim Sharia law as the main source of legislation. I grew up not being allowed to learn the language of my indigenous ethnic group, Aramaic, in school. Only Aramaic prayers were allowed to be taught in schools run by local churches. The “Arabization” of Syria was a major focus of the government at that time. Christians and other religious minority groups were ignored in the country’s constitution, which also specified the religion of the president as Muslim, driving home the point that non-Muslim Syrians were second-class citizens.

So when young Syrians first began protesting the government in 2011, as the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East, I was thrilled that this revolution might bring freedom to the oppressed. But what started as an inspiring revolution quickly became an armed rebellion dominated by religious extremists. Soon after, it appeared to me that my aspirations needed to be reflected by a physical model. I joined the SDC because there’s a certain camaraderie among the oppressed, and I felt at home with others who, like me, had been marginalized under the Baathist regime. Five years ago, a wide body of Syrians, including Arabs, Kurds, Syriacs, Turkmen, and Armenians, gathered to write a social contract. That contract works toward “justice, freedom, and democracy, in accordance with the principles of ecological balance and equality without discrimination based on race, religion, belief, or gender.” We all must work together toward our collective liberation.

The SDC’s model is based on equal representation and community empowerment — the values which are embedded into our governance structure. Every governance position is held not by one person, but two. These two people are typically of two different genders, as well as two different ethnicities. Neighborhoods and towns elect their own leadership and rely on the community to handle internal disputes. Under the SDC model individuals are free to choose and practice their own religion without fear of persecution. New social provisions such as shelters for victims of domestic abuse allow women unprecedented freedom and safety in the region. The promotion of our principles is a critical part of our ideological battle against ISIS.

Winning the ideological war against ISIS is a must, for both world security and our own security in northeastern Syria. To win this war, we need a counter ideology and a counter moral vision. SDC embodies such a moral vision, one that is based on pluralism, inclusion, social justice, gender equality, and religious and individual freedom. If we do not invite the people to share such a vision, ISIS will reproduce itself in the failing model of dictatorship and ensuing corruption.

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