The rhetoric about the so-called “War on Terror” has led us down the wrong path for 20 years. Terrorism is a tactic. We are not at war with terror. Similarly, our fight is not against radical or extreme Islam. When it comes to the Middle East, particularly Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, it is imperative that we understand the true nature of the threat. We are fighting Islamic Fascism—the political idea in which state actors or nonstate actors are using Islam to rule people through the use of violence. This is not about Islam itself, but rather about belligerents hijacking the religion for their own political purposes. With this definition, it is clear that you can be a good Muslim and not be a fascist. This is the reality for thousands of Sunni Arabs who fought and died alongside Christians and Kurds against ISIS as members of the Syrian Democratic Forces.

We are fighting a political idea that currently manifests itself in the violent actions from Turkey and Iran as well as non-state actors who seek land and governing structures—ISIS, Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq, thugs in Idlib, and even those in al-Hol refugee camp. The ongoing war in Afghanistan has shown that we can’t win with just guns and money; we have to win the war of ideas. To permanently defeat the Islamic Fascists, we must first delegitimize their ideology. The only way to do this is by ensuring the success of two areas being governed in the exact opposite manner, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and the proposed Nineveh Plains Province. You can’t make people care about each other or respect each other’s religion; it has to be organic. Both of these areas are religiously diverse and include some of the oldest Christian communities in the world.

The Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria is a perfect example of a space being governed in the exact opposite manner as Turkey, Iran, and the Syrian regime run areas nearby. The 4 million people who live here have created a functioning government, a military force to defend its people, and a shared identity based on values in a community made up of multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-linguistic people. It is the only area in the entire Middle East where Christianity can be proselytized, where churches can easily be built and droves of the population are self-converting to Christianity. Christians are living peacefully alongside Arab and Kurdish Muslims, Yazidis, and Armenians. There are more women in political leadership than even in the West. No wonder Turkey and Iran would like to see its demise.

Since the Turkish invasion on October 9, hundreds of civilians have been killed, and several hundred thousand have been displaced. Personally, we have seen the results of the drone attacks and how they continue in civilian areas outside the “safe zone.” Turkey is currently moving between 1 and 3 million refugees from other parts of Syria after forcibly removing Kurds, Christian, and Yazidis. It is impossible to call this anything other than ethnic cleansing. This most recent incursion is the third in three years, so it would be foolish to presume Turkey’s aggressions are finished. Most people on the ground in northeast Syria expect Turkey will try to gain more land within six months to a year.

In order to empower the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria to defend its civilian population from future attacks by Turkey, ISIS, and Iran, the United States should immediately give them political recognition as a state in the future Syria. This political jurisdiction, based on the social contract and the rights of all the people in northern Syria, would give the president an ability to conduct business in northern Syria and still maintain sanctions on the rest of Syria. This would also give nations the political legitimacy needed to continue the delivery of humanitarian aid. Recognition would ensure a future for the people of northern Syria. The success of their political project could free us from needing an enduring military footprint.

In Iraq, Christians and Yazidis are still not able to return to their homes after being victims of genocide by the Islamic State in 2014. That persecution continues with the Iraqi-funded militias directed by Tehran, the Hashd al-Shaabi, PMUs, or PMFs—that continue to chase them from their homes or make it impossible for them to return. While USAID has been rebuilding homes, community centers, infrastructure, and working to recruit private investors, the security conditions make for an impossible situation with a fraction of the religious minorities returning.

The recent militia attack on an Iraqi military base killed an American contractor and injured several American and Iraqi soldiers. The US military responded with airstrikes against the specific militia, leading to militia members and leaders storming the US embassy in Baghdad. These violent actions by Iranian agents are the very reason young Iraqis have been in the streets protesting. Peaceful demonstrations show that the Iranian controlled government in Baghdad does not have the consent of the governed. The Islamic Fascist ideology of Sunni ISIS has been replaced by Shia pro-Iranian agents inside the government of Baghdad. This is a paradigm where Shia Iraqi citizens have indicated that they are Muslim but not fascists. They are willing to fight and die for freedom. This is about shared values, not sectarian divisions.

Iraq’s constitution provides for the creation of the Nineveh Plains Province. Supporting this province is the only way we can support Christians in their desire to return, govern, and protect themselves. We have worked with the Nineveh Plains Council, which is made up of Chaldean, Syriac, and Assyrian political parties. They are anxious to implement a plan first produced in 2017 that would eventually protect all the people who live within the Nineveh Plains: Shia, Sunni, Yazidi, Kakai, Kurdish, Turkmen, and Christian. When ISIS approached the area in August 2014, security forces fled and abandoned Christians and Yazidis. Despite billions of US defense spending and training, the Iraqi Security Forces did not send one unit to defend these vulnerable communities. The Kurdish Peshmerga did not have the resources or capability to defend these areas, having not been given equipment or training similar to the Iraqi Security Forces. These communities simply won’t put themselves and their families in that vulnerable position again. They must have an indigenous security force comprised of members from their own community. We met with security professionals ready to implement this structure.

It is time we recognize the power of freedom being lived out surrounded on all sides by Islamic Fascism. Contrasting the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and the Nineveh Plains with nearby areas will help us win the war of ideas to defeat Islamic Fascism—similar to the juxtaposition of West Germany to East Germany which led to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. We can give speeches about the need for religious freedom in the Middle East, but actions speak louder than words. The success of these spaces will be the best strategy against Turkey’s desire for a caliphate or Iran’s coveted land bridges through Syria and Iraq. Most importantly, we defeat their ideology by displaying the virtues of freedom right inside their borders.