Despite the fluidity in Syria, some tentative but important conclusions can be drawn. First, the war will drag on for years. Second, a military victory by any party in the entire country is extremely unlikely. Third, there is no basis for a negotiated agreement. Fourth, the centralised, Damascus-ruled Syrian state is almost certainly a thing of the past. Fragmentation seems not just inevitable, but well underway.
Syria is beginning to splinter into regionally discrete areas in a manner strikingly reminiscent of Lebanon, though the eventual outcome may look very different.
The regime of Bashar Al Assad represents the interests of a family, a clan, a sectarian community, and a broader circle of clients and cronies, in that order of importance. It would be reductive to call it simply an Alawite government, but that community is its bedrock and primary support.
But the regime need not control all of Syria to secure its interests. It first needs key areas along the border with Lebanon, particularly in the south near Damascus.
Second, it requires the key northeastern roads and infrastructure leading from Damascus north to Qusair, scene of a bloody battle in June between government forces backed by Hizbollah units and rebel groups.
Slightly to the north-east is Homs, which government and rebel forces have bitterly struggled over, and which now lies in ruins. It is the crucial gateway to the north-west coast and rugged mountains abutting Turkey that have been home to the Alawites for centuries.
As long as the regime can control this wide strip of western Syria, its most fundamental interests can be maintained. If eventually regime forces are driven into the north-west, there would probably be an attempt to re-create a de facto version of the Alawite mini-state that existed under French rule from 1922-1936, before it was reincorporated into what ultimately became independent Syria. The putative Alawite state, unlike Lebanon, could not become independent because its capital, Latakia, had then – and still has – a Sunni Muslim majority. Presumably the creation of an autonomous Alawite redoubt would involve significant sectarian “cleansing” there. In the long run, such atrocities might not be forgiven by either the world or the Syrian majority.
But such a de facto mini-state could, at least for a time, be viable. It would possess a large coastline with at least two major ports and both military and civilian airports. It would not be cut off from the outside world, and would continue to receive significant support from Russia, Iran and others.
The Kurdish community in the north has already moved to declare itself autonomous, and aligned itself with the de facto independent Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.
Druze communities in the south have tended to identify with Alawites for a multitude of historical, cultural and religious reasons.
However, their militias are becoming increasingly independent and generally no longer work with government forces.
At the same time they have refused entreaties by Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt to join the rebellion and are staking out a neutral position that is essentially defensive. One can therefore also imagine the consolidation of a much smaller Druze enclave in the Jabal Al Arab region with its capital in Soueida.
Assuming, then, that Alawites, Kurds and Druze all possess the wherewithal, with fraternal, regional and international support, to create their own quasi-autonomous enclaves in discrete areas, that leaves most of the rest of Syria to its Sunni majority and the beleaguered Christian minority scattered throughout the country.
Armed Sunni groups are pursuing different projects in different regions. The Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIS) is openly attempting to establish a kind of emirate in parts of northern Syria, and, indeed, is fighting with Kurdish militias over certain territories.
The more secular and nationalistic Free Syrian Army groups, on the other hand, have taken control of significant areas of the South. In a very troubling development, the newly formed Jaish Al Islam coalition has drawn some Salafist groups away from the FSA coalition and seems to bespeak an intensification of the Islamist component to the rebellion, even when it is not linked to Al Qaeda.
This is disastrous because while the Alawites, Kurds and Druze all have the potential to create safe havens in discrete areas, the Sunni majority and many Christians – and numerous smaller minorities – could end up living under the control of extremist groups, at least for a brief time. Even a short period of fanatical domination is calamitous, as the beleaguered people of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor are currently discovering.
Non-extremist rebels have no choice but to confront Al Qaeda and similar extremists in a two-front campaign that also challenges the regime. And the outside world has no choice but to help them do so by all possible means. If Syria is to fragment, parts of it must not fall into the hands of Al Qaeda or be ruled by Salafists imposing their own narrow, literalist version of Sharia on what is still, and must remain, a cosmopolitan, diverse and heterogeneous society.
Even if it cannot really be held together as a centralised state, Syria must be protected from extremism. And that requires intensive international aid to non-extremist Sunni rebels. State fragmentation in Syria may be inevitable, albeit highly undesirable. But the degree of catastrophe it entails can, and must, be attenuated.