The uprising in Syria is swiftly transforming into a civil war that could lay waste to the country, and the fallout from the year-old conflict already is bleeding outside the country's borders.
Diplomats such as Kofi Annan are working feverishly to end the bloodshed, not only because 9,000 people have been killed since the revolt began last March. The conflict could enflame already simmering regional tensions, give rise to extremists like al-Qaida and upend some of the most enduring alliances in the Middle East and beyond.
_ THE NEIGHBORHOOD
All-out war in Syria could spark a regional conflagration.
Syria is a vital geopolitical linchpin. It borders five other nations, has close ties to Iran and powerful militant groups, and controls water supplies to Iraq, Jordan and parts of Israel. Syria controlled Lebanon for decades and still carries sway there. The Syrian unrest could provoke fighting in Lebanon, which is still haunted by its own civil war. And although Damascus and Israel are officially at war and Israel has occupied Syria's Golan Heights since 1967, the frontier has remained quiet under Assad's rule.
_ THE ALLEGIANCES
Syria is a highly unpredictable country, in part because of its web of allegiances to powerful forces, including Lebanon's Hezbollah and close ally Iran. The collapse of Assad's rule would likely end Iran's cozy ties with Syria and potentially redraw the Mideast's pathways of influence. Instead of the so-called Shiite crescent _ from Iran through Iraq and onto Assad's regime, led by Shiite offshoot Alawites _ a new corridor of Sunni allies could be forged from Saudi Arabia, through Jordan and into Syria.
It would also choke off money and supply channels to Tehran's main anti-Israel faction, Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as Hamas in Gaza.
_ THE EXTREMIST FACTOR
U.S. intelligence officials have pointed to al-Qaida in Iraq as the likely culprit behind several recent suicide bombings in Syria, raising the possibility its fighters are infiltrating across the border to take advantage of the turmoil. The Sunni Muslim extremists who support al-Qaida will fight to oust Assad, given that his Alawite sect is aligned with Shiism. Al-Qaida's involvement could further fuel sectarian tensions unleashed by the uprising.
_ LOOMING CIVIL WAR
The Syrian conflict has fed into the country's sectarian tensions.
The regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Assad belongs. Assad, and his father who ruled the country before him, reserved the top echelons of the military and political leadership for Alawites, which bred smoldering resentments.
But Sunnis make up the majority of Syria's 22 million people, as well as the backbone of the opposition. Even as much of the opposition insists the movement is entirely secular, reports from the ground suggest religious tensions are boiling over.