When the Arab League made the Syrian uprising and burgeoning civil war its regional business, it landed in the middle of a struggle for preeminence among prominent world powers, which were using Syria as their arena.
The Arab League's bid to bring Bashar Assad to heel was spearheaded by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
In the outer circle, the US and France stands on one side against Russia and China, on the other.
President Barack Obama has again opted for the role of back seat driver which he chose in Libya, while French President Nicolas Sarkozy seeks in the eastern Mediterranean, i.e., Syria, the same kind of political and economic benefits he gained in Libya.
On the other side, Russia and China are determined to prop President Assad up against the efforts to knock him down and, above all, to obstruct a repetition of the Western-Arab military intervention which toppled Muammar Qaddafi in Libya.
This week, Moscow was crystal clear about its intention to violate any arms embargo the West imposed on Syria when Viatcheslav Djirkaln, joint director-general of the Federal Russian Service of Military cooperation, said there would be "no restrictions at all on arms deliveries to Syria," and Russia would of course abide by all its "contractual obligations to Syria."
Bashar Assad will not fall yet
By supplying Assad with all the munitions he needs to suppress the revolt against him, Russia is telling the West and the Arab League it is resolved to reverse their efforts to oust the Syrian ruler.
"There will be no second Qaddafi in the Middle East and certainly not in Syria," senior Russian officials have told their American counterparts at every international meeting in the past few weeks.
Beijing's positions on Syria are not as clear and sharp-edged as Moscow's.
China is following Russia's lead because Assad's downfall would undercut Iran's regional standing. China is above all keen on maintaining a stable Iran, which is its largest oil supplier while China is Iran's biggest oil and gas customer. Any shocks disrupting the steady flow of Iranian oil to China would pose the threat of higher inflation and unemployment in the country.
According to official Chinese figures, Iran shipped over 20 million tons of crude to Beijing in the first nine months of this year – nearly a third more than the same period last year. Their overall trade rose 58 percent from 2010 to $32.9 billion.
China is also an important supplier of gasoline to Iran, making up for the Islamic Republic's insufficient refining capacity. The two countries are bound by energy deals worth $120 billion and growing. Not just maintaining, but strengthening the Tehran-Damascus alliance, is Beijing's best guarantee for the Arab Revolt to stop at Iran's door.
For the Sunni powers, Assad's eclipse is the key to banishing the ayatollahs
The Sunni governments led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, for their part, own a strong interest in the Assad regime's eclipse as the trigger for the Arab revolt to spill over from Syria into Iran and terminate the rule of the ayatollahs and end Hizballah's stranglehold on Lebanon.
This multiple impasse is expected by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East experts to cause six things to happen in Syria in the near term:
1. President Assad will not fall soon in spite of the huge military, economic and political pressures applied to him by the West, Turkey and his Arab colleagues.
2. The Syrian civil war will gain intensity as the protest movement evolves into a full-dress insurgency led by army defectors who are receiving more and more arms from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar. In the past week, new rebel units began crossing into Syria after combat and weapons training in Turkey.
3. The slightest change in the sympathies of Syrian minorities, such as the Kurds, Druze and Christians, some of whom are still loyal to Assad, would alter the balance of strength in the country. They are staying out of the troubles for now, but some have begun barricading their districts against assault.
Assad-controlled areas will begin shrinking
4. The areas still controlled by pro-Assad forces and groups will start shrinking as rebel-held districts expand. The tipping point would come with a Turkish military incursion for creating a protected haven inside Syria to safely accommodate rebels and refugees. This enclave would sharpen the division between the two territories and expand the anti-Assad holding.
Assad has repeatedly threatened to lash out and set the Middle East aflame before he lets himself be ousted. To achieve this he has three plausible options:
• Shiite attacks could be staged on US targets in Iraq and the Persian Gulf without waiting for US or Israeli operations against Iran's nuclear program. If Tehran decided that saving Bashar Assad was the key to winning the battle for its nuclear program, Assad could be enlisted for an offensive against US interests in Iraq, waged, for instance, by Tehran's proxy, Hizballah.
• The Kurdish card. Assad could step into the war Turkey is waging on rebel Kurdish PKK strongholds in Iraq by allowing the rebels to strike Turkish military targets across their long border from Syrian soil.
So if Turkey does establish a rebel enclave inside Syria, Assad may retaliate by helping Kurdish rebels seize parts of southern Turkey.
Ankara already suspects that Syria lent Kurdish insurgents a helping hand for an attack which left 24 soldiers dead in southern Turkey on October 19. This attack was allegedly carried out by the PKK's Syrian wing led by the Syrian Kurd Fehman Huseyin.
The PKK is politically active in Syria through the Partiya Yekitiya Demokrat (Democratic Union Party – PYD) which was founded in 2003 and is one of Syria's strongest political parties.
• Assad can if he wants, inflame the Palestinians – not just in the West Bank against Israel, but also against King Abdullah of Jordan, with whom he has a big bone to pick after the monarch became the first Arab ruler to frankly tell Assad to resign in a BBC interview.
The army may reach its breaking point
6. From Day 1 of the Syrian uprising nine months ago, the army has held the key to its success or failure.
Today, the military elite remain for the most part loyal to the Assad regime. But this could change, depending on certain circumstances – if, for instance, a wave of defections – by whole units not just individuals – altered the army's character and composition. This has not yet happened.
However, the army's new intake is dwindling. New conscripts who make up 75 percent of the armed forces are not showing up at induction centers. There are no fresh troops to relieve soldiers exhausted from 9 months of relentless combat.
At some point, the top army brass may decide that the price they are paying to keep Assad in power is too high and present him with an ultimatum to step down, like the Egyptian army did to Hosni Mubarak last February.