(CNN) — The United States and its allies are gearing up for a new push to unify the Syrian opposition and topple President Bashar al-Assad. They are looking to exploit battlefield gains by the rebels and change the trajectory of the conflict before Syria collapses into a patchwork of local fiefdoms — and the violence explodes rather than seeps beyond Syria’s borders.
With the U.S. election out of the way and growing concerns about the rise of jihadist groups within Syria, Western powers are now engaging groups fighting inside Syria, rather than the exiled and ineffectual Syrian National Council. The ultimate goal may be to create a safe zone — a slice of liberated Syria — where the opposition can form an interim government.
U.S. and British diplomats are concerned that over the last year, the initiative has been yielded to countries like Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and to “nonstate actors” from countries like Libya. They have been picking sides among the diverse brigades of the Free Syrian Army, paying the salaries of FSA fighters and sending weapons.
There is also great anxiety about a rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis, with food and fuel shortages compounded by colder weather and inadequate access to those most in need.
Here are five signs that the landscape of the Syrian conflict is changing:
1) The U.S. has finally abandoned the Syrian National Council
After 18 months of internal squabbling and little coordination with groups inside Syria, the exiled SNC is finally surplus to requirements.
Gruesome videos show Syria atrocities
Syrian war spilling over into Turkey
Defiant Assad: I’m not a puppet
Urgent help needed for Syrian refugees
At a news conference days before the U.S. election, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “We’ve made it clear that the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition. … That opposition must include people from inside Syria.”
She also disclosed that the U.S. had helped smuggle out some leaders of the internal opposition to promote their role. State Department officials say there have already been contacts with the Free Syrian Army.
British Prime Minister David Cameron chimed in last Wednesday.
“There is an opportunity for Britain, for America, for Saudi Arabia, Jordan and like-minded allies to come together and try to help shape the opposition, outside Syria and inside Syria,” he said during a visit to Syrian refugees in Jordan.
The UK is reviewing whether U.N. sanctions prevent it from supplying weapons to the rebels.
2) The opposition has gotten a makeover
During several days of meetings in Qatar that ended Sunday, the Syrian opposition only reinforced its reputation for bickering. At first, the SNC elected a new executive of 40 members (all men) with a more Islamist complexion — a sign to some observers that it was increasingly a vehicle for the Muslim Brotherhood. But eventually, after badgering from the Qataris, the Saudis, the Arab League and Western diplomats, it agreed to join a new structure that gives activists inside or recently departed from Syria a bigger say, just as Clinton had demanded.
One driving force behind the new body — inelegantly called the National Coalition of the Forces of the Syrian Revolution and Opposition — has been Riad Seif, to whom foreign governments (and especially the United States) look as someone who can unite the opposition.
Seif, a former member of the Syrian parliament who has spent much of the last decade in jail, escaped from the country in June. He will be one of two deputies to Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, a moderate cleric who was imprisoned several times by the regime before leaving for Egypt in the summer. The other deputy is Suhair al-Atassi, a well-known women’s rights activist. Her election to such a prominent role is a signal of the new leadership’s secular complexion.
The Syrian opposition leadership now has credibility. But the emir of Qatar, who was instrumental in pushing for the new structure, quickly warned: “This work has ended, but the next step is more important.”
The United States also welcomed the new body.
“We look forward to supporting the National Coalition as it charts a course toward the end of Assad’s bloody rule and the start of the peaceful, just, democratic future that all the people of Syria deserve,” the State Department said.
Much time has been lost. The Turkish and Qatari governments have championed rebel brigades close to the Muslim Brotherhood, and those brigades have emerged as powerful and independent entities, especially in the north. Washington’s hope, analysts say, is that a broadly representative leadership will regain control of the opposition without more direct and possibly counterproductive U.S. involvement.
3) Islamist influence is gaining
Driving the sense of urgency in Washington, London and Paris is this: The lack of cohesion in the resistance was, and is, opening up space for jihadist groups such as Jabhat al Nusra, which has stepped up its campaign of suicide bombings and joined Free Syrian Army units to capture military bases.
In the most detailed assessment yet of Islamist factions among rebel groups, the International Crisis Group reported last month that “the presence of a powerful Salafi strand among Syria’s rebels has become irrefutable.”
Al Nusra units are said to have taken part in the assault on the one of regime’s main airbases in the north at Taftanaz. It’s from there that regime helicopters launch deadly raids across Idlib and Aleppo provinces.
Al Nusra is attracting recruits because it is better equipped than many FSA factions. Foreign fighters may number no more than 1,000, but their experience — in Iraq, Libya and even Chechnya — makes them valued recruits. And with the regime losing control of many border crossings, they can get into Syria easily.
Writing in Sentinel, which is published by the Countering Terrorism Center at West Point, James Denselow says “a marriage of convenience between secular and Salafi-jihadi fighters against the Bashar al-Assad regime could lead to a bloody divorce along the lines of the Afghan mujahidin in the 1980s.”
Only a more activist approach by Washington and its European allies will reverse the trend of lethal aid getting into “the wrong hands” and marginalize Islamist militant groups.
4) Turkey talks Patriots
To change the dynamics on the ground, the rebels need a sanctuary within Syria. At some point, the Free Syrian Army has to control part of Syria if they are to succeed.
NATO and its individual members have ruled out enforcing a no-fly zone because of the risk to aircraft from Syrian missile batteries, which makes the talk by Turkish officials about installing Patriot missiles along the border with Syria all the more intriguing.
“No official request has been made, but talks are continuing as part of contingency plans,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said at a news conference Friday.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Prague, Czech Republic, on Monday: “If such a request is to be forwarded, the NATO council will have to consider it.”
It’s been emphasized in Ankara that the Patriots would be a defensive deployment in case Syrian ballistic missiles should be fired into Turkey.
But they could be used to deter Syrian air power, which has pounded rebel-held territory in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. While designed to bring down missiles flying at five times the speed of sound, and with a limited range, Patriots could certainly threaten Syrian MiGs flying within about 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the border. Missiles can be armed in less than 10 seconds and reach supersonic speed within a second of being launched.
5) The regime’s grip on northern Syria is slipping
Right now, a buffer zone within Syria looks most feasible in the northwest, where the Assad regime has lost wide swaths of countryside along the border with Turkey and strategic towns. In addition, military bases in Idlib and Aleppo provinces are under siege or have been overrun, and the regime has lost control of the main M5 highway that links Damascus and Homs with the major northern cities.
One example: For almost a month, rebels have laid siege to a major military base: Wadi al Deif. It is close to the town of Maraat al Nouman, which sits on the main highway. Regime forces inside the base have been hanging on, according to opposition activists, receiving supplies from the air.
Rebel units have also begun attacking a military airport in Idlib and have cut the road linking Aleppo with the coast. The regime has responded with more attacks by air — many of them indiscriminate bombings of towns the rebels now hold. Maraat al Nouman and other towns and villages in Idlib have been devastated.
The number of deaths in Idlib province more than doubled in October to 720, according to opposition activists, as the rebels tried to expel government forces from a wide swath of northwestern Syria.
Better coordination among rebel units, more reliable supply lines and an improved supply of weaponry might tip the balance against a regime that is gradually being worn down by its inability to suppress the insurgency. In recent months, a pattern has emerged as Syrian forces batter one suburb of Damascus only to see rebels regroup and surge into another.
That coordination may be a step closer with the announcement by the Free Syrian Army’s military council that it is restructuring. It is creating five distinct geographic commands. Mustafa Sheikh, who heads the council, told the French news agency AFP last week: “We are getting closer and closer to becoming organized, so that we can get to a stage that is accepted by the international community.”
More critically he added: “When this happens, the international community will know where these weapons are going.”
Senior figures within the FSA are said to be moving from Turkey back into Syria to impose greater discipline on brigades that are becoming notorious for human rights abuses.
… But it’s late in the day
This injection of urgency into defeating the Assad regime is unlikely to yield results before winter, and is it not likely to allow about 400,000 Syrian refugees the chance to return home. More than 9,000 crossed into Turkey in one day last week. Cold and hunger could worsen their already precarious situation, and millions of Syrians still at home are sure to face shortages of fuel and food.
According to the United Nations refugee agency, there are at least 1.2 million internally displaced Syrians and a total of 2.5 million that need help.
Nor will the latest initiatives soon put a stop to the wholesale destruction across Syria. From the suburbs of Damascus to the central cities of Homs and Hama to the heart of Aleppo and Idlib in the north, whole neighborhoods have been razed. One video posted last Wednesday showed a wrecked school in Douma, a suburb of Damascus; another set of photographs published in the Atlanticincludes scenes reminiscent of Stalingrad or Dresden.
It is extremely difficult to estimate the cost of reconstruction in Syria — to repair homes, schools, hospitals, pipelines and highways, but also to fund post-revolutionary institutions.
One study by economist Walid Jadaa, published in September, estimated the cost of the upheaval so far at $36 billion, which includes lost remittances from Syrians overseas and an end of tourism as well as physical damage. The Syrian government recently put the cost of the conflict at $34 billion.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights has estimated that nearly 600,000 buildings have been affected and put the cost of rebuilding or replacing them at about $40 billion.
The changes in and beyond Syria in the last few weeks do not mean the imminent end of the Assad regime. Perhaps a better way of putting it is to recall how Winston Churchill described the defeat of Axis forces in North Africa in November 1942: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”