10/12/2012 06:03 pm ET Updated Dec 12, 2012

Why (and How) Syria's Conflict Could Get Worse

Syria's continuing carnage and chaos have led to tens of thousands of people (mostly non-combatants) being killed and maimed. Many more have become refugees, within their homeland, or in neighboring countries. With things already so horrific, it's hard to imagine them getting worse. But the regime of Bashar al-Assad is steely cruel. Besides, we don't have to think hard, or far back in time, to find examples of how pitiless wars within and among nations can be.

So we must, realistically, consider a possible deterioration--and one that affects not just Syria but other countries besides.

Let's start, though, with Syria. The awful truth is that the Assad government is willing and able to do a lot more killing. Talk of its imminent demise--which has become a mantra of sorts--is premature and may be an instance of the wish fathering the thought. The regime has slaughtered its way to survival for over a year-and-a-half now, and there's no sign that it's having second thoughts. Syria's leadership is neck deep in blood and knows that a terrible fate awaits if it falls, and so it has nothing to lose.

Besides, although much Western press coverage and punditry would have us believe that the Syrian state has no public support, the reality is different. Its base is indeed the Alawite minority, but there are not nearly enough Alawites to staff the Syrian army, intelligence services, and bureaucracy: the community accounts for a mere 12 percent of the population. The regime must rely on Sunnis (at 74 percent, the largest community), Christians, and others. It always has.

People make complex choices in life-and-death circumstances, and for a mix of reasons enough non-Alawite Syrians have opted to stick with the regime, however unenthusiastically. Hence, despite some important defections, the House of Assad has not crumbled; nor is there any unmistakable sign that it is about to. Swathes of the country are now controlled by various armed opposition groups, but that just means that Syria could come to resemble Lebanon during the worst years of its horrendous civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.

Assad is isolated, even in the Middle East, but he is not without backing. Iran, Russia, China, and Hezbollah have supported him, albeit in different ways. And the clearer it becomes that Syria's civil war has been internationalized, with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey giving material aid to the anti-Assad forces (themselves a divided lot), and with American assistance, the less likely Assad's patrons are to abandon him before they conclude that he's a dead duck. They haven't yet reached that conclusion.

The stakes are particularly high for the Shiite duo of Iran and Hezbollah. That's because part of what we have been witnessing on the grand chessboard occupying the expanse from Iran to Morocco is an epic power play between Sunni Saudi Arabia (joined by Qatar) and Shi'a Iran. The Alawites are an offshoot of Shiism, and Assad's regime is thus connected closely to Iran and Hezbollah. There is an unhappy and oppressed Shi'a majority in Bahrain (some 70 percent of the population) that is ruled by a heavy-handed Sunni monarchy. There is a disgruntled Shi'a minority (10 percent) in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich east and the government has already used force to subdue protesters. What is occurring in Syria is therefore more than a civil war in a single country.

Then there's Turkey, where the Kurds, concentrated mainly in the country's southeast, constitute about 18 percent of the population. Turkey's Kurds, especially the radical and violent Workers' Party of Kurdistan (PKK), have long fought the Turkish government in a war that has consumed 40,00 or so lives since 1984.

Lately, Turkey's Kurdish problem has gotten worse because of what's happened in adjacent countries. In the aftermath of America's toppling of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Kurds, 15-20 percent of the population, have created what amounts to a state-within-a-state in the north: it's officially called the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The Turks have built extensive economic ties with the KRG but they watch it warily and have regularly attacked PKK redoubts in Iraqi Kurdistan, from the air and on the ground.

Assad's regime has either lost control of much of Syria's Kurdish-minority northeast--where various nationalist groups, including one linked to the PKK, are active--or decided to loosen its grip so as to put pressure on Turkey. Turkey is desperate to ensure that Syria's civil war does lead to fragmentation and the rise of an independent, or KRG-style, Kurdish statelet in Syria. The birth of Kurdish states from the wreckage of Iraq and Syria will make Turkey's persistent Kurdish problem much worse.

But Syria's violence could have even wider repercussions. It's no secret that Syria's leadership and its Turkish counterpart have gone from cooperation to outright acrimony as a result of Assad's crackdown. The rhetoric between them has heated up, the two sides have traded fire in recent weeks, and on Wednesday Turkey intercepted a Syrian passenger plane, claiming that it was ferrying Russian military equipment.

Imagine another clash between Turkish and Syrian troops--but one that escalates. Imagine further that Turkey, claiming that it's under attack, invokes Article V of the NATO Treaty (officially, the Washington Treaty). The rest of the alliance can't very well claim that collective defense as defined in Article V applies only to an attack in Europe or North America (which is technically true):Turkey is partly in Europe. The Turks already feel that that they have been left by the West, particularly the United States, to bear alone the burdens and risks created by Syria's war. Might Ankara have an interest in forcing the hand of the West?

One other hypothetical. Imagine that the revolutionary tide produced by the Arab Spring, of which Syria's conflict is a manifestation, establishes itself strongly and persistently in Jordan, a monarchy friendly to the United States and Israel. Large protests occurred in Jordan just this month, with the Muslim Brotherhood at the helm. Imagine further that another mass protest by the Shi'a underclass starts in Bahrain and overwhelms the authorities. The Saudis send troops to quash it, as they did in March 2011, but this time they find that it's not so easy and that the Saudi Shi'a rise up in solidarity with their Bahraini kin.

So far, American leaders, in the executive branch and the Congress, have portrayed the war in Syria as a clear-cut struggle between good and evil, as has the press for the most part. But once autocratic regimes that the United States has long backed and armed face mass demonstrations and their police and armies start shooting, things will get more complicated. Does the ethical standard used to condemn Assad apply to Bahrain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia as well? Or do these undemocratic friends get benefits? What will then become of the Washington's oft-repeated high-minded ideals?

Now, what I've discussed above are some dramatic what-ifs. But based on the sudden, unexpected upheavals we've witnessed since the emergence of the Arab Spring none can be dismissed as impossible. Which, alas, is why the Syrian problem could indeed get worse.