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.
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.