Monday, July 14, 2014

Gaza Situation Report

Nothing left...only the flag!!!

The current confrontation in Gaza began July 12 after three Israeli teenagers disappeared in the West Bank the month before. Israel announced the disappearance June 13, shortly thereafter placing blame on Hamas for the kidnappings. On June 14, Hamas fired three rockets into the Hof Ashkelon region. This was followed by Israeli attacks on Palestinians in the Jerusalem region. On July 8, the Israelis announced Operation Protective Edge and began calling up reservists. Hamas launched a longer-range rocket at Tel Aviv. Israel then increased its airstrikes against targets in Gaza.

At this point, it would appear that Israel has deployed sufficient force to be ready to conduct an incursion into Gaza. However, Israel has not done so yet. The conflict has consisted of airstrikes and some special operations forces raids by Israel and rocket launches by Hamas against targets in Israel.

From a purely military standpoint, the issue has been Hamas's search for a deterrent to Israeli operations against Gaza. Operation Cast Lead in late 2008 and early 2009 disrupted Gaza deeply, and Hamas found itself without any options beyond attempts to impose high casualties on Israeli forces. But the size of the casualties in Cast Lead did not prove a deterrent. 

Hamas augmented its short-range rocket arsenal with much longer-range rockets. The latest generation of rockets it has acquired can reach the population center of Israel: the triangle of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. However, these are rockets, not missiles. That means they have no guidance system, and their point of impact once launched is a matter of chance. Given these limits, Hamas hoped having a large number of rockets of different ranges would create the risk of substantial Israeli civilian casualties, and that that risk would deter Israel from action against Gaza.

The threat posed by the rockets was in fact substantial. According to senior Israeli Air Force officers quoted on the subject, Israel lacked intelligence on precisely where the rockets were stored and all the sites from which they might be launched. Gaza is honeycombed with a complex of tunnels, many quite deep. This limits intelligence. It also limits the ability of Israeli airborne munitions from penetrating to their storage area and destroying them. 

The Israeli objective is to destroy Hamas' rocket capacity. Israel ideally would like to do this from the air, but while some can be destroyed from the air, and from special operations, it appears the Israelis lack the ability to eliminate the threat. The only solution would be a large-scale assault on Gaza designed to occupy it such that a full-scale search for the weapons and their destruction on the ground would be possible. 

Hamas has been firing rockets to convince the Israelis that they have enough to increase casualties in the triangle if they choose to. The Israelis must in fact assume that an assault on Gaza would in its earliest stages result in a massive barrage, especially since Hamas would be in a "use-it-or-lose-it" position. Hamas hopes this will deter an Israeli attack.

Thus far, Israel has restrained its attack beyond airstrikes. The extent to which the fear of massed rocketry was the constraining factor is not clear. Certainly, the Israelis are concerned that Hamas is better prepared for an attack than it was during Cast Lead, and that its ability to use anti-tank missiles against Israel's Merkava tanks and improvised explosive devices against infantry has evolved. Moreover, the occupation of Gaza would be costly and complex. It would take perhaps weeks to search for rockets and in that time, Israeli casualties would mount. When the political consequences, particularly in Europe, of such an attack were added to this calculus, the ground component of Protective Edge was put off.

As mentioned, a major issue for the Israelis is the intelligence factor. It is said that Iran provided Hamas with these rockets via smuggling routes through Sudan. It is hard to imagine the route these weapons would take such that Israeli (and American) intelligence would not detect them on their thousand-plus mile transit, and that they would move into Gaza in spite of Israeli and Egyptian hostile watchfulness. Even if Iran didn't provide the weapons, and someone else did, the same question would arise.

The failure of the Israelis to detect and interdict the movement of rockets or rocket parts has an immediate effect on the confidence with which senior Israeli commanders and political leaders calculate their course. Therefore, to this point, there has been a stalemate, with what we assume is a small fraction of Hamas' rockets being fired, and limited operations against Gaza. The ground operation is being held in check for now.

It is interesting that there have been few public attempts to mediate between Hamas and Israel, and that the condemnation of violence and calls for peace have been more perfunctory than usual. Last week, reports emerged of Turkish and Qatari attempts to negotiate a solution. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also reportedly contacted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, offering assistance in mediating a truce. Meanwhile, high-ranking diplomats from the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany discussed truce efforts on the sidelines of talks on Iran. These efforts may explain Israeli reluctance to attack, or provide a justification for not carrying out an attack that Israel might see as too risky.

The problem for Israel in any cease-fire is that it would keep the current status quo in place. Hamas would retain its rockets, and might be able to attain more advanced models. Israel was not able to stop the influx of this load, so Israel can't be confident that it can stop the next. A cease-fire is a victory for Hamas because they have retained their rocket force and have the potential to increase it. But for Israel, if it assumes that it cannot absorb the cost of rooting out all of the rockets (assuming that is possible) then a cease-fire brings it some political benefits without having to take too many risks.

At this moment, we know for certain that Israel is bombing Gaza and has amassed a force sufficient to initiate ground operations but has not done so. Hamas has not fired a saturation attack, assuming it could, but has forced Israel to assume that such an attack is possible, and that its Iron Dome defensive system would be overwhelmed by the numbers. The next move is Israel's. We can assume there are those in the Israeli command authority arguing that the Gaza rockets will be fired at some point, and must be eliminated now, and others arguing that without better intelligence the likelihood of casualties and of triggering a saturation launch is too high. 
We have no idea who will win the argument, if there is one, but right now, Israel is holding.

·        *  This analysis was published first by Stratfor Global Intelligence on 14/07/2014.
* George Friedman is the Chairman of Stratfor, a company he founded in 1996 that is now a leader in the field of global intelligence. Friedman guides Stratfor’s strategic vision and oversees the development and training of the company’s intelligence unit.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Resurrection of Ahmad Chalabi

The man who helped convince the United States to invade Iraq has spent the last decade in the political wilderness. But now, with his country in chaos, he could be its next leader.

BY JANE ARRAF from Baghdad

Ahmad Chalabi

Outside the steel doors and high walls of what was once a country estate on the outskirts of Baghdad, trash is piled along dusty streets marked with concrete blast barriers. In large swaths of the country, Sunni fighters intent on erasing Iraq's borders to create a sweeping Islamic state battle Iraqi soldiers and Shiite militiamen. Inside, in the more refined world he has willed into being, Ahmad Chalabi ponders his political resurrection.

"The politicians believe this is business as usual -- it is not," he says in an interview with Foreign Policy, while leaning back in the embrace of a Danish-designed chair made in Baghdad from the reclaimed teak doors of old houses. "Iraq has never faced dissolution since its creation until now. This is the first time Iraq faces dissolution on two fronts -- the Kurds and the Sunnis."

Chalabi is dressed in a black T-shirt, black parachute pants, and black suede shoes with no socks. He sits surrounded by Iraqi paintings -- at Baghdad's declining number of art galleries, his purchases alone help keep some artists afloat. In the garden in the evening, fans with water reservoirs spray a cooling, rose-scented mist. He is renovating his swimming pool, where neoconservative American officials used to swim when he was still a darling of President George W. Bush's administration. Now, the U.S. Embassy across town is evacuating its nonessential staff, and the remaining Foreign Service officers aren't allowed even to cross the street.

To many in the West, Chalabi, 69, is still the political operator who convinced the Bush administration that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, paving the way for the U.S.-led invasion of the country. But inside an Iraq dangerously on the verge of splintering, that invasion is almost ancient history. After almost a decade of being sidelined, the man who could not win a seat in parliament in 2005 and whose name once inspired insults scrawled on Baghdad walls has emerged as a serious contender to replace Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

In fact, he believes he can save Iraq.  

"The facts, you see, add cumulatively to my credibility with all sections of society," he says. 

"These people proposing me to be prime minister -- [they are] not only among the Shiites but among the Sunnis and the Kurds."

Those "facts," as Chalabi sees them, are a proven record of reducing government corruption and the economic qualifications to repair Iraq's bleeding economy. Now, he has his sights set on crushing the Islamic State -- formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a jihadist organization that has recently seized vast areas of territory in the north and west of the country. To do that, he says the government needs to mend ties with the country's Sunni community.

"The way to defeat ISIS, in my view the only way, is first of all -- after a good government is formed -- you have to issue a law of national reconciliation to win over the Sunnis in a serious way."

In June, Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, fell to ISIS, which rebranded itself as the Islamic State and declared the creation of a caliphate. With the Sunni jihadists on their doorstep, Iraqi political leaders are still wrangling over who will form a new government after elections in April. One of the only things they seem to agree on is that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should not be given a third term in office.

Chalabi, a secular Shiite, has not been wasting his time while in the political wilderness. In the past decade, he has forged strong ties with hard-line Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, as well as the major Kurdish factions and key Sunni leaders. Close to Iran and apparently now tolerated by the United States, he has emerged as perhaps the ultimate compromise candidate in a country fatally lacking in political compromise.

Part of Chalabi's proposed reconciliation would be reviewing the cases of thousands of prisoners, most of them Sunnis, who have been arrested under sweeping anti-terrorism laws and held in jail without charge, or long past orders for their release. Chalabi says he would also appoint a judicial committee to review cases where people have been sentenced on the basis of coerced confessions.

Then he would turn his attention to Iraq's bleeding economy and combat corruption. The former banker proposes a team of forensic auditors -- perhaps headed by the American former special inspector for Iraq reconstruction, Stuart Bowen -- to review contracts and contracting procedures in order to reduce Iraq's staggering corruption. Chalabi also points to his experience in government in 2005, when he says he exposed a $1.2 billion contracting scandal and proposed a committee to oversee large contracts. "For one year there was not one instance of corruption in the entire contracting process of the Iraqi government," he says -- a claim difficult to verify.

Perhaps one of the most dramatic aims of a man inextricably associated with laws punishing former Baath party members would be to roll back de-Baathification, which he now argues has been perverted from its original purpose of dismantling Saddam's party institutions to being used as retribution for political purposes.

"It became the common wisdom that Sunnis hate me because of this de-Baathification," Chalabi says. But given the even harsher crackdown that followed his departure, he claims, "They are having nostalgia about de-Baathification."

* * *
But before Chalabi turns to the future, he has a litany of grievances against those he believes have wronged him in the past. While several former Bush administration officials still champion his political ambitions, top on his list of adversaries is the man the United States appoint to lead the occupation authority following the 2003 invasion: Paul Bremer.

"Bremer never liked me from the beginning," Chalabi says, blaming a2003 editorial he published in the Wall Street Journal, in which he thanked the United States for toppling Saddam Hussein but warned it against staying in Iraq. He blames the United States -- and U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi -- of excluding him from Ayad Allawi's interim government, formed in 2004.

Chalabi, who was paid by the CIA for six years as part of a futile covert effort to topple Saddam Hussein, also bats away claims that he was responsible for the incorrect intelligence about the Iraqi regime's purported WMD stockpiles. He says his role was limited to putting informants in touch with the CIA for the agency to evaluate on its own. A congressionally appointed committee discounted his connection to the now-discredited source known as "Curveball," later identified as Iraqi defector Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, whose claim that Saddam was operating mobile biological weapons laboratories was used by the Bush administration to publicly make the case for war. Chalabi says the widespread claim in the media of his connection to Janabi was payback for ruffling feathers at the State Department and White House.

"What happened is that the narrative of war that Bush based his plan on fell apart," he says. "Who is at fault? I am. It's an easy target -- a foreigner in Iraq who did things in Washington with questionable methods whom they didn't like. It's easy."

However, Chalabi is still happy to take credit for his key role in bringing the United States to Iraq. After being cut loose by the CIA, he went to Washington in 1997 to lobby Congress to back attempts to overthrow Saddam. A year later, the Iraqi Liberation Act, which made it U.S. policy to support regime change, was signed into law.

"The main thing we did was we made the Iraq issue an American political issue inside the United States," Chalabi says. "Of course this gets me great ill will with the American bureaucrats, so every chance they get, they dump on me."

* * *
Even by the mercurial standards of Iraqi politics, Chalabi has had a dramatic ride. Less than a year after the beginning of the war, he was given a privileged seat near first lady Laura Bush at President Bush's 2004 State of the Union address. Four months later, U.S. Special Forces raided his office following accusations that he sent sensitive files to Iran and forged currency with plates stolen from the Iraqi mint. The charges were later dropped. He is still, however, sentenced in absentia to prison with hard labor in Jordan, where he is held responsible for the collapse of the kingdom's second-largest bank in 1989. Chalabi maintains he was made the scapegoat for that collapse.

The passage of the years has not managed to erase everyone's suspicions about him. As one former Western diplomat who has dealt with him put it, "I think [Chalabi's new popularity] is part of Iraq's long slide into the abyss."

But Chalabi believes that recent events have validated his decision in the years following the invasion -- much bemoaned in Washington at the time -- to pursue cooperation with Iran.

"Are they not cooperating with Iran?" Chalabi says of the United States. "Are they not accepting Iranian interference in the war against ISIS? Why was that a bad thing to do in 2003 to 2004 and why is it a great thing now? Who was right and who was wrong?"

During his years out of political power, Chalabi launched a sort of economic salon -- twice-weekly seminars bringing together technical experts to thrash out economic and political issues -- that has burnished his credentials as a technocrat able to rise above sectarian issues.

In what was once a grain cellar for his family's ancestral farm -- and is now lined with gleaming-white concrete and outfitted with a stage and audiovisual system amid the abstract art -- a rotating cast of academics, policy makers, and industrialists still gathers for discussions of issues such as the role of the central bank, how to revive industry, and how to combat corruption.

Chalabi mostly listens -- as he has been listening for the past decade.

"Every week he meets tens if not hundreds of technocrats and academics, and he tries to find the right people," says an independent Iraqi analyst who has attended his seminars and, like many, describes him as "brilliant."

"When the Americans turned against him, he became alone -- he was only respected by the Kurds," says the analyst. "Everybody was ignoring him, so he used that in a very clever way -- he did not want to become a puppet. I think he knows the only way to have his star shine is when there is nationwide disagreement."

Chalabi, perhaps disingenuously, says he isn't seeking the prime minister's job.

"What's the point if there's no plan?" he asks. "To put Iraq back together is very difficult. The points of this plan will be opposed violently by some Shiites because their concept is they are in power.... But we can't conquer Sunni lands with Shiite militias. That's one thing we need -- a plan to stitch Iraq back together."

With Iraq unraveling and after a decade waiting in the wings, this might be Chalabi's chance to implement that plan.
       * This report was published first in Foreign Policy on 10/07/2014

·         * Jane Arraf was the CNN’s Baghdad bureau chief after the American invasion of Iraq

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Battle For Iraq Is A Saudi War On Iran

Why the ISIS invasion of Iraq is really a war between Shiites and Sunnis for control of the Middle East.
King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia

Be careful what you wish for" could have been, and perhaps should have been, Washington's advice to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that have been supporting Sunni jihadists against Bashar al-Assad's regime in Damascus. The warning is even more appropriate today as the bloodthirsty fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) sweep through northwest Iraq, prompting hundreds of thousands of their Sunni coreligionists to flee and creating panic in Iraq's Shiite heartland around Baghdad, whose population senses, correctly, that it will be shown no mercy if the ISIS motorcades are not stopped.

Such a setback for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been the dream of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah for years. He has regarded Maliki as little more than an Iranian stooge, refusing to send an ambassador to Baghdad and instead encouraging his fellow rulers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) -- Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman -- to take a similar standoff-ish approach. Although vulnerable to al Qaeda-types at home, these countries (particularly Kuwait and Qatar) have often turned a blind eye to their citizens funding radical groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the most active Islamist groups opposed to Assad in Syria. 

Currently on vacation in Morocco, King Abdullah has so far been silent on these developments. At 90-plus years old, he has shown no wish to join the Twitter generation, but the developments on the ground could well prompt him to cut short his stay and return home. He has no doubt realized that -- with his policy of delivering a strategic setback to Iran by orchestrating the overthrow of Assad in Damascus showing little sign of any imminent success -- events in Iraq offer a new opportunity.

This perspective may well confuse many observers. In recent weeks, there has been a flurry of reports of an emerging -- albeit reluctant --diplomatic rapprochement between the Saudi-led GCC and Iran, bolstered by the apparently drunken visit to Tehran by the emir of Kuwait, and visits by trade delegations and commerce ministers in one direction or the other. This is despite evidence supporting the contrary view, including Saudi Arabia's first public display of Chinese missiles capable of hitting Tehran and the UAE's announcement of the introduction of military conscription for the country's youth.

The merit, if such a word can be used, of the carnage in Iraq is that at least it offers clarity. There are tribal overlays and rival national identities at play, but the dominant tension is the religious difference between majority Sunni and minority Shiite Islam. This region-wide phenomenon is taken to extremes by the likes of ISIS, which also likely sees its action in Iraq as countering Maliki's support for Assad. 

ISIS is a ruthless killing machine, taking Sunni contempt for Shiites to its logical, and bloody, extreme. The Saudi monarch may be more careful to avoid direct religious insults than many other of his brethren, but contempt for Shiites no doubt underpinned his WikilLeaked comment about "cutting off the head of the snake," meaning the clerical regime in Tehran. (Prejudice is an equal-opportunity avocation in the Middle East: Iraqi government officials have been known to ask Iraqis whether they are Sunni or Shiite before deciding how to treat them.)

Despite the attempts of many, especially in Washington, to write him off, King Abdullah remains feisty, though helped occasionally by gasps of oxygen -- as when President Barack Obama met him in March and photos emerged of breathing tubes inserted in his nostrils. When Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi -- and, after his elder brother's recent stroke, the effective ruler of the UAE -- visited King Abdullah on June 4, the Saudi monarch was shown gesticulating with both hands. The subject under discussion was not revealed, but since Zayed was on his way to Cairo it was probably the election success of Egypt's new president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, considered a stabilizing force by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Of course, Sisi gets extra points for being anti-Muslim Brotherhood, a group whose Islamist credentials are at odds with the inherited privileges of Arab monarchies. For the moment, Abdullah, Zayed, and Sisi are the three main leaders of the Arab world. Indeed, the future path of the Arab countries could well depend on these men (and whomever succeeds King Abdullah).

For those confused by the divisions in the Arab world and who find the metric of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" to be of limited utility, it is important to note that the Sunni/Shiite divide coincides, at least approximately, with the division between the Arab and Persian worlds. In geopolitical terms, Iraq is at the nexus of these worlds -- majority Shiite but ethnically Arab. There is an additional and often confusing dimension, although one that's historically central to Saudi policy: A willingness to support radical Sunnis abroad while containing their activities at home. Hence Riyadh's arms-length support for Osama bin Laden when he was leading jihadists in Soviet-controlled Afghanistan, and tolerance for jihadists in Chechnya, Bosnia, and Syria.

When the revolt against Assad grew in 2011 -- and Riyadh's concern at Iran's nuclear program mounted -- Saudi intelligence reopened its playbook and started supporting the Sunni opposition, particularly its more radical elements, a strategy guided by its intelligence chief, former ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. The operation's leadership changed in April, when Bandar resigned in apparent frustration over dealing with the cautious approach of the Obama administration, but Saudi support for jihadi fighters appears to be continuing. (The ISIS operation in Iraq almost seems the sort of tactical surprise that Bandar could have dreamt up, but there is no actual evidence.)

In the fast-moving battle that is now consuming northern Iraq, there are many variables. For Washington, the option of inaction has to be balanced by the fate of the estimated 20,000 American civilians still left in the country (even though the U.S. military is long-departed). Qatar, the region's opportunist, is likely balancing its options of irritating its regional rival, Saudi Arabia, while trying not to poke the Iranian bear. There are no overt Qatari fingerprints yet visible and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, just celebrating his first full year in power after his father's abdication in 2013, may be chastened by the public scolding he received from the rest of the GCC after he was accused of interference in the domestic affairs of his brother rulers. Additionally, Doha may be cautious in risking Iran's ire by an adventure in Iraq. Having just given five Taliban leaders refuge as part of the Bowe Bergdahl swap, Qatar has effectively clearly stated where it lies in the Sunni-Shiite divide.

There is a potentially important historical precedent to Saudi Arabia's current dilemma of rooting for ISIS but not wanting its advances to threaten the kingdom. In the 1920s, the religious fanatic Ikhwan fighters who were helping Ibn Saud to conquer Arabia were also threatening the British protectorates of Iraq and Transjordan. Ibn Saud, the father of the current Saudi king, gave carte blanche to the British to massacre the Ikhwan with machine-gun equipped biplanes, personally leading his own forces to finish the job, when the Ikhwan threatened him at the battle of Sabilla in 1929.

It's hard to imagine such a neat ending to the chaos evolving in the Euphrates river valley. At this stage, a direct confrontation between Saudi and Iranian forces seems very unlikely, even though, as in Syria, the direct involvement of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps cannot be ruled out. What is clear that the Syrian civil war looks like it will be joined by an Iraqi civil war. ISIS already has a name for the territory, the al-Sham caliphate. Washington may need to find its own name for the new area, as well as a policy.

-         *  This articles was first published in Foreign Policy on 12/06/2014

-          * Simon Henderson is the Baker fellow at The Washington Institute and director of the Institute's Gulf and Energy Policy Program, specializing in energy matters and the conservative Arab states of the Persian Gulf.  

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Syria’s Dirty Secret Is That Assad Could Win In A Fair Election

Syrian citizens walking past an election campaign billboard with photo of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Syria, 11 May 2014. EPA/SANA HANDOUT

There is a presidential election in Syria and Bashar Al Assad is going to win. The only question is by how much.

As a presidential candidate, Mr Al Assad has done quite well. He has overseen a truce that has seen one of the country’s largest cities return to government control. He has maintained his relationships with his allies in Iran and Hizbollah. He still cuts a man of the people stance, in marked contrast to the extremists who seek to run the country.

He is, above all, a known quantity, a man who has led the country through difficult times, promises stability and is backed by an army that can deliver it. All in all, Mr Al Assad looks like a credible candidate.

Though only, of course, if you overlook the fact that he caused the civil war that rages today.

But there is a serious reason to understand why Mr Al Assad is seen by many within and without Syria as a credible candidate. Because many will vote for him.

Certainly, that is because there is no real alternative, because the only places in which voting will take place are under government control, because 40 years of propaganda have removed any alternative – and because the Assad regime has spent three years demonstrating what it means by the slogan “Assad or we burn the country”.

But the dirty secret in Syria today is that, if the presidential election were free and fair, Bashar Al Assad would still win.
However unpalatable it is, the man who has overseen the systematic destruction of the country, who has made more refugees than anyone else in the Middle East this century, is still popular. We ought to ask why.

The last time Mr Al Assad faced a popular vote, in 2007, I was in Syria. Buildings and highways were emblazoned with the Arabic word for “Yes”. Although billed as a presidential election, it wasn’t: the parliament had merely proposed that Mr Al Assad be nominated as president for a second term and the public were asked to ratify this decision. Unsurprisingly, they did, all 97 per cent of them.

Yet even the opposition inside the country conceded that, were there a free vote, Mr Al Assad would still have won. The regime was popular – not 97 per cent popular, but popular enough for a majority.

To understand why, and to understand why millions will vote for Mr Al Assad in three weeks, it is important to understand how Syrians saw themselves then and how they see their country today.

In 2007, and even up to 2011, life was getting better in Syria. It wasn’t moving fast enough and the country was riddled with corruption, but for many of the urban middle-class in Damascus and Aleppo, life was better than it had been. Syria was safer than any neighbouring country. The chaos of Iraq next door felt far away.

The uprising changed that. Many who supported it in the beginning, when it looked like it would swiftly topple a long-standing regime, regretted their position as months became a year and a year became three.

It is one thing to fight for an idea: the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square had no thought who would follow Hosni Mubarak, they just felt it had to get better. Similarly for the Syrian revolutionaries. But gradually, what started as a dream took on a form: no longer were thawra and hurriya, revolution and freedom, slogans. They became personified, first in the person of Mohammed Morsi and then in the faces and actions of the Islamists who flooded into Syria.

The secular society – enforced, certainly, but existing – that the Assad regime has created was under threat. And who would defend it? The politicians of the Syrian opposition? They were unknowns, long in exile, squabbling over who would sit on a throne not yet vacated. To Syrians inside the country, they looked like they were arguing over dividing up the spoils of a battle they were not fighting.

The future these groups offered was unknown or unpalatable. Even those who don’t accept the propaganda that the rebels are terrorists can accept that the regime is brutal and murderous – and still prefer it to the unknown rebels and lawless gangs that promise to follow the regime.

For those who have not suffered loved ones killed or in exile – or for those who have but who blame the Syrian rebels for their deaths, directly or indirectly – life with Mr Al Assad is still preferable to the unknown without him.

That should make the Syrian opposition and the international community think very seriously about their policies, about their outreach and about what message they are sending to the people inside the country. Even the flow of weapons to the rebels has a political dimension, because support will follow success and success requires arms. By arming the moderates, the international community will empower them.

The Syrian civil war is not over. The withdrawal from Homs did not end it and the presidential election, regardless of the declarations of Mr Al Assad, Hizbollah or Iran, will not end the revolution. For millions, there is no way back. After seeing their families killed, seeing their children scrabbling in the dirt for food, seeing their neighbourhoods bombed to pieces, there is no accommodation with a regime. There is only rebellion.

But the opposition must understand that there are millions inside the country who need a message, who need a vision of what Syria without Mr Al Assad would look like. If they cannot fill in the blanks for Syrians, they cannot expect Syrians to fight for the unknown.

- This article was published first in The National on 13/05/2014