by Ghassan Kadi

If there was ever indeed a civil uprising in Syria, it would have had to be, by-and-large, in Idlib.

Idlib is an impoverished region of Syria. It is located in the north-west, inland from the coastal Syrian Army stronghold of Lattakia, and south of Aleppo; Syria’s second largest city and economic hub. Being predominantly Sunni and poor, the combination made it a lucrative recruitment spot for the various Takfiri groups.

The process of youth radicalization has had Idblih as its base for a long time, decades, and long before the so-called Syrian Revolution, Civil War and Arab Spring started. After the Hama events of 1982, the Syrian Government did not want to, or was indeed unable to, stop radicalization without crossing that fine line between radicalism and Islam. The government did not want to be seen like it was standing in the way of teaching religion for the sake of teaching religion, and the zealot Imams, as well as their sponsors, seized the opportunity to use the veil of religious teaching in order to spread radicalism.

This situation was not unique to Idlib. As a matter of fact it is indeed akin to the position of Western governments who cannot touch the mosques without undisputed evidence that they are conducting military training. Even then, they will have to tread very carefully in order not to offend all Muslims.

In Syria, all poor Sunni areas had religious schools, and if and where those schools did not exist, there were always the mosques and their “teachers”. In Idlib however, the religious demographics stipulated that in the absence of other religious groups and movements, dominance of radicalism was inevitable.

Certainly, the funds came in from the Gulf, and especially from Saudi Arabia.

The Baath teachings and school curriculum subjects such as Arab Nationalism, taught to children at primary schools, were not strong enough to stand in the way of the radicalism tsunami, neither did the Government try to be seen doing this; all in the fear of being seen as anti-religious, and anti-Sunni in particular.

The Assad family is Alawite, but the Assads do not have a bone of sectarianism in their hearts. This did not stop their enemies from portraying them as enemies of Sunnis. The Assads, father and son, had to exercise great caution; especially after the 1982 Hama events which were used by fundamentalists to present it as a black mark against the Assad family and a drive for Jihadi recruitment.

In reality, Hafez Assad did not take a hard line at all, neither during the conflict nor later. It was his brother Rifaat who committed most of the tough and brutal acts, including the massacre of the Tadmur prison in which five hundred inmates were shot dead in their cells purportedly personally by Rifaat himself.

After the Hama events, the Syrian Government did try to clamp down on fundamentalist militarism, but it did not want to be seen probing into the works and teachings of religious schools and mosques.

Now, four and a half years into the war, The Russian air attacks and Syrian Army movements are eyeing Idlib with a special interest.

Clearly, even though the Russian airstrikes are hitting ISIS targets all over Syria, the military strategy is to cleanse the Western regions in order not to leave pockets from which the Syrian Army can be stabled in the back. To this effect, the biggest fish to fry is Aleppo. The key to Aleppo however is Idlib because it is heartland of Syrian opposition; if there is indeed such a thing.

It is only in a handful of Syrian towns and villages where Islamist fighters would get popular support and protection from Syrian citizens, and Idlib is on the top of that list. Conquer Idlib, and you have conquered the beating heart of Syrian-based fundamentalism.

With the air support it is getting from the Russians, the Syrian Army is moving on many fronts in the region bound between Homs and Aleppo, and Idlib is right in the center of it.

Events on the ground are moving very fast, and the fall of strategic positions and towns at the hands of the Syrian Army and its allies is rather difficult to keep pace with. The fall of Idlib has become inevitable, and once Idlib and the neighbouring Jisr Al-Shougour are over and done with, the fall, or rather liberation, of Aleppo may turn into a walk in the park.

Strategically speaking, the military battle of Idlib is one that is already of predictable outcome, and it is a matter of time before the rebel terrorists lose, escape, or surrender.

What is more pertinent however is how to win the battle for the heart and mind of Idlib.

ISIS cannot be defeated by military means alone. Military action can crush its infrastructure, cripple its finance base, decimate its military, but it will not defeat its ideology.

Wrong are those who only see the US-borne side of ISIS and conclude that America is the root of the problem.

The root of the problem is an archaic misinterpretation of the Quran that has been around for centuries; an interpretation that is based on conquest and coercion.

Unless those misinterpretations are addressed and debunked by Muslim clerics and leaders, and unless such misinterpretations cease to have a popular following, they will eventually resurface when the conditions become favourable.

The world should combine efforts not to allow the resurrection of ISIS, and this concerted effort ought not to be done only in Syria, but sadly everywhere there is a center for Islamic teaching and mosques; including those based in the West.

However, the truth of the matter is that the ISIS syndrome is not restricted to the organization that bears that name. It is the cumulative failure of humanity that has turned religion against religion, sect against sect, race against race, nation against nation and brother against brother.

ISIS might have taken a very harsh and brutal form, but the seed of ISIS mentality is embedded everywhere, in every religion, sect and nation. When it is cloaked under the guise of civility and human rights and masked by clean shaved faces, suits and ties with beaming smiles, it is not any less dangerous and devastating.

So before world leaders, even those with best of intentions, point fingers and regard ISIS as the sole source of evil and decide to eradicate it, people, as individuals and groups of different orientation, ought to look within and honestly address what beliefs, thoughts and motives do they harbour.

The battle for the hearts and minds of Idlib is a microcosm of the battle for humanity to shine. The military conquest is the easy part.

The Essential Saker: from the trenches of the emerging multipolar world