For the Alawite minority who make up much of the elite military and other key parts of the government, the stakes could hardly be higher. The longer the war continues and the more reports of massacres, the greater the risk of a perhaps almost genocidal backlash against them should the government fall.
“Even if al-Assad left, some of the Alawi fighting forces… would probably continue to defy any new government in the coastal areas and the adjoining Nusayri Mountains,” said Firas Abi Ali, Middle East analyst at London-based Exclusive Analysis. “At the very least, you’d have a government that had lost control of its territory and would only begin to regain it relatively slowly. That has been hard enough in Libya, where you have much less in the way of ethnic and religious divisions.”
As in the Balkans, a growing number of analysts say the prospect of some kind of international intervention is gradually rising despite Russian opposition and great reluctance in the United States particularly ahead of November’s election.
“This doesn’t necessarily mean American boots on the ground at the very least it requires billions of dollars not just from the Gulf but from the U.S. and Europe as well,” says former State Department adviser Ratner. “The alternative… is a power vacuum in Syria, a continuing humanitarian tragedy and a strategic missed opportunity of historic proportions”
In the shorter term, however, options are seen as extremely limited. While the leadership of the Free Syrian Army talk of the war being over in weeks or months, many analysts see fighting lasting well into next year.
That could feed into an already deepening regional confrontation between Shi’ite Iran and its Sunni-led Saudi and Gulf enemies along with the US, Israel and West. That - already seen stoking unrest amongst Shi’ite groups in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain - also looked to have escalated on Wednesday, with Israel blaming Tehran for a suicide bomb attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria.
If that were the case, which Tehran denies, analysts say it might be retaliation for the assassination of several of top Iranian nuclear scientists as well as ever tightening international sanctions aimed at its nuclear program.
With so many moving parts, making solid predictions for even the immediate future is all but impossible. But while most analysts believe a wider military confrontation in the region will be avoided this year at least, the overall temperature is unquestionably rising.
“I imagine it will only get bloodier and messier in the region,” said Alvi at the US Naval War College, warning that Syria looks like turning into a potentially larger version of the 1980s Lebanon civil war, which also dragged in other local and international powers. “Keeping up the diplomatic pressure is probably the only option available at this stage. Even if it doesn’t seem very effective, it is better than nothing at all.”