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 Atlantic includes 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.