Fears of an as-yet-undefined Middle Eastern war are darkening the horizons of a region that only a year ago was celebrating the fall of dictators, the ascent of people power and the promise of a new era of democracy.
Most worrying of all, as shells rain down on the Syrian city of Homs and TV screens across the region replay gory scenes of casualties captured on videos posted on YouTube, there is now little doubt that Syria is in the early stages of a civil war, one whose potentially profound ramifications provokes jitters far beyond its borders.
Although a wider war is by no means inevitable, 2012 is already proving a dark sequel to the hope and possibility of 2011, as the demands of ordinary people for greater freedoms collide with the competing agendas of big powers in the region's most volatile heart.
"There are two different trajectories in the Middle East," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. While "North Africa is moving toward more democracy," he said, the Levant region - including Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq - is "moving toward confrontation and sectarian conflict. It is a much darker, gloomier trajectory."
Despite chaos in Cairo and confusion in Tripoli, the three North African nations of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are getting on with the task, however messily, of building new democracies that may yet work after a year in which authoritarian leaders in each country were deposed.
But in the Arab heartlands stretched between Israel and Iran, the awakening of democratic aspirations has stirred ancient rivalries and more recent grudges across a network of crisscrossing fault lines, any one of which could crack and trigger all the rest.
"It feels like anywhere could explode, without knowing why, at any time," said Umm Haya, a Syrian living in Baghdad, reflecting the widespread sense of unease among many living beyond Syria's borders."The whole region is inflammable."
At the center of it all is Syria, whose nearly year-long revolt began as an overwhelmingly peaceful uprising against the rule of President Assad but now is being reshaped into a far wider struggle for influence.
'Syria will explode'
Unlike Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, whose relatively limited regional reach ensured that their revolts were contained within their borders, Syria lies at the nexus of a web of strategic alliances, geopolitical interests and religious jealousies that would be upended were the regime there to fall. "Libya imploded. Syria will explode," said a diplomat from a non-Western country interviewed in Damascus. "And it will explode across the whole region."
Iran vs west
Underpinning the struggle for Syria, however, is a far older battle for supremacy between Iran and the West, Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Persians, which appeared to have been suppressed by the popular clamor for change that erupted across the Arab world last year but which now has resurfaced as a key dynamic driving the competition for power.
And with Russia already providing arms to the government and Iran offering technical assistance and military advice, according to US officials, the stage is set for Syria to serve as the venue for a messy proxy war that could spill into Lebanon, Iraq and perhaps beyond.
In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post.