That timing is partly why Syria policy is now getting a rethink, in Washington and beyond. The U.S. is assessing a more muscular approach to Syria, to the point of potentially reviving the option of military action; Syria’s delayed delivery of its chemical weapons could become a key point of contention. In alignment with U.S. objectives, Saudi Arabia is consolidating its Syria file under Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Interior Minister, in a bid to bring extremist rebel groups under control. Meanwhile the Syrian opposition itself is aiming to gain strategic ground, naming a new rebel commander and effectively shifting the focus to Syria’s southern front, to the part of the country that includes Damascus and its key arteries. If the Saudi promise of anti-aircraft weapons gets delivered, it would amplify their punch at Assad’s aerial power.
Collectively, the pressure they apply is aimed at changing the calculus in Damascus – and in Moscow and Tehran – toward a compromise. How effectively that can happen is an open question. The rebels have lacked for effective organization and coordination; now they face a new rift over the removal of General Selim Idris. The ceasefires around Damascus appear to be less about reconciliation and more a factor of rebel capitulation – fatigued rebel fighters giving in to quiet wins for the regime. Where the regime does exercise control, Assad’s security establishment and his paramilitary National Defense Force are increasing in influence.