A year on from the Arab Spring, and of all the uprisings and protests that proliferated across the region, the one that was one of the first, and in the country with so much strategic and political baggage, remains the most violent, the most tenacious, and the most intractable; a situation that retains the strongest danger of being a Pandora's box.
The first thing to be understood about Syria is the nature of its society and its government, before we talk about the plethora of wider issues.
Like Iraq and Lebanon, Syria is a multi-faith, multi-ethnic country created in the aftermath of the First World War. The ruling Baath party came to power in the sixties, the same as their former namesake in Iraq. In Iraq the Baath party was a party that had the support of the Sunni minority over a Shia majority (as well as Kurds and a small number of Christians); in Syria, the Baath had the support of the Alawites (a Shia sect), who ruled over the Sunni majority, with Christian acquiescence.
In both Iraq and Syria, in spite of the religious differences, the Baath were a secular party that encouraged the active suppression of religion; during the Cold War, and as allies of the Soviet Union while the USA were allies of Israel, even the Prophet was in danger of being seen almost as a person of ridicule, although the Baath in Syria and Iraq were always keen to indulge Islam where useful.
So, with Iraq liberated, Syria remains the only bastion of the Baath party: a party that, by definition, is the party representing a small religious sect, now atrophied by five decades of rule into an elite clan that remains in power by sheer force of will over an opposing Sunni majority, backed up by the fear of religious and civil war.
Bashar Al-Assad has remained in power through using similar techniques to Saddam Hussein; a personality cult, an efficient police state, and fear of sectarian civil war as the only alternative to the father of the nation. Saddam Hussein used his sons to ensure that his regime stayed in place through brutality and paranoia; Bashar Al-Assad uses his brother, Maher for the same purposes (more about him later).
But Bashar's situation still has some crucial differences. For a start, there is the personality. Saddam Hussein seemed to come across as the "Stalin of Iraq"; a gangster-like figure who ruled Iraq by his singular force of will, backed up by his male offspring and extended family. By comparison, Bashar Al-Assad seems on a personal level as threatening as, say, John Major: as much as Bashar might sound the tough guy, it hardly ever sounds natural or believable. In fact, Bashar does not appear to have the natural leadership skills, because it seems not natural to his personality; in every interview seen of him, he sounds passive, his voice soft, difficult to carry. When you see him at party rallies in front of his closest, most fanatical supporters, his body language even there seems slightly awkward, almost embarrassed of his supposed supreme power and popularity.
This is where Maher, his younger brother, comes in. Bashar was not, in fact, meant to be destined for power; that was meant to go to his elder brother, Basil, who died in the mid-nineties. The status as heir apparent then passed to Bashar, so that when his father, President Hafez, died a decade ago, Bashar was still getting to grips with the role.
Interestingly, soon after Bashar came to power, there was a movement towards modest political reforms backed by the new President, seemingly in order to make some sort of clean break with his father's leadership style. This didn't last long, though: Maher has been leader of the army and security services since Hafez died, and he quickly put wind to any real steps towards reforms. Those calling for freedom and a democratic process were quickly suppressed by the military; since that time, Bashar has not bothered to make any further efforts at reform.
And so we get to the situation of a year ago. With what we know of Bashar's personality, it can be quickly guessed that it is Maher who is the real power behind the throne, along with the elderly patricians of Hafez's generation. It is Maher who has been orchestrating the military campaign against the majority of his own country's people; Bashar has, more than likely, been stuck in a bubble of his Baath hardliners who urge further fighting and brutality because they fear for their own lives if they fall. Meanwhile, the likes of Maher and others like him are in a psychotic death-march to genocide, intent on killing anyone who gets the way of the regime, using any spurious justification possible.
So that's a summary of the internal situation: a virtual genocide by a government, who have declared war on most of their own people; furthermore, it has become a sectarian genocide, because it is effectively the government of the Alawite sect persecuting the majority Sunnis. Gaddafi also committed genocide; due to the swift actions of the international community, the worst of the violence was over within the first few months, leaving the remaining six months a gradual war of attrition across the wide open spaces and desert towns and cities of Libya.
Alas, those being persecuted in Syria have seen no such response from outside after almost a year of unrest and virtual civil war. Apart from the political reasons, which are many (and I'll go into those shortly), there are also tactical differences that explain why the same response as in Libya has not happened.
To begin with, the UN declared a no-fly zone to prevent attacks on civilians. The air attacks happened in Libya partly because the sheer size of the country, the distances between towns, and the terrain, meant that air attacks were the easiest way for the Gaddafi regime to deal with the unrest. The Al-Assad government has had no urgent need for air support, so therefore a no-fly zone, even if it were supported in the UN, would be pretty pointless.
The Western powers then took the UN resolution with such a broad interpretation that they used it to justify air attacks on Gaddafi's military instillations and hardware. Furthermore, some countries also began supplying the opposition with more effective firepower. These things have not happened either because there is no UN agreement on a tactical resolution to the conflict; Syria is seen as "messier" from a tactical point of view because there are more closely-packed urban areas than in the open desert of Libya.
But the main issues are political, and these are many. Apart from the sectarian nature of society that brings about discouraging comparisons with Iraq, the wider outside implications of the fall of the Al-Assad government is what caused the real sleepless nights in the major capitals in the region and the wider world.
Going back to the Cold War, Syria contains Russia's only naval base that exists outside of the immediate Russian sphere of influence; of obvious strategic value to Russia, any change of government would make Russia feel uncertain to the status of this prized piece of real estate. Apart from that, Russia has always been keen to discourage any country's internal affairs being interfered in from the outside. This is a point of principle, but one that houses an obvious self-interest. Looking back to 2008: in February of that year, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, a historic Russian ally; almost immediately, Russia supported the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, resulting six months later in war. So, point taken.
The Al-Assad government are Alawites, a Shia sect; since the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the ties between Iran and Syria have got closer and closer; these days the Middle East is diplomatically as divided like during the Cold War (or like the years leading up to the First World War in Europe), with Iran and Syria on one side (implicitly backed up by Russian and Chinese "neutrality"), and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States on the other (implicitly backed up by Western "democratic values" from the US, Turkey and Europe).
For that reason, no-one is really sure how Iran would react if the Al-Assad government fell.
This partly depends on the nature of its removal (a clear outside intervention could easily be seen as a "provocation" leading to God-knows-where, whereas internal removal by the opposition would put Iran in a trickier position).
It also depends on the state of play within Iran itself: whoever is really in charge, the Ayatollah or Ahmadinajad or the more "moderate" in the regime voices at the time.
And it also depends on whatever mood music is coming from the West; if the Iranians feel threatened and encircled due to Western intransigence and rhetoric, they may well lash out in desperation if the Al-Assad regime fell. If the West plays a more considered game, some sort of accommodation might be reached; if not, then things could get very sticky, very quickly.
In that sense, although the Middle East in 2012 may seem like a re-hash of the Cold War alliances, in another sense it feels more like Europe in 1914: Syria is like Bosnia, Damascus like Sarajevo; in itself a fairly small and not massively important country on paper, but a geopolitical powder-keg sitting on a melting-pot, primed to explode.
It's often forgotten that the Balkans, the birthplace of the Great War, had for the first thirteen years of the 20th century, been host to a number of minor conflicts and internal insurrections. So, in the same way, has the Middle East for the first eleven years of the 21st century. The territorial boundaries of the Balkans were drawn and squabbled over by various imperial powers from the 1820s onwards, right up to the 1910s; the same could be said of the Middle East if you shift the timeline forward a century.
In any case, it seems almost unthinkable that the current situation in Syria could last as it is for another twelve months. Somehow, it appears that there will be some sort of Syrian endgame in 2012. But what?
As things stand, with the Arab League shunning Syria, yet still not yet ready to take the plunge militarily, and with the USA and Europe most likely to do what they can to cause problems for the Al-Assad regime short of getting involved militarily, the most openly vocal critics, with the means at their disposal, as well as the moral force and support of regional powers to do something meaningful, are Turkey.
There is a kind of clear logic to the thinking that, since the Turks' excellent relations with the Arabs, some kind of intervention, with the support of willing Arab forces from, say Jordan and/or Saudi Arabia and Qatar, could well happen. This, at least would have clear moral support from the likes of the Arab League, and without the need for direct Western involvement. Besides, much of the Syrian opposition are based in Turkey.
Although what Iran might think of such an intervention is another matter, but as I suggested earlier, what Iran thinks about the likes of Turkey is also important. As far as I know, Turkey retains cordial relations with Tehran, so this might hold back the more hard-line elements of the Islamic regime from winning the argument.
But, then again, it's also hard to deny that if the Al-Assad regime does fall sometime this year, that there could well be a bloodthirsty period of revenge by Sunnis against the Alawites. After what they have been subjected to for the past year, one could hardly blame them for wanting it. That could then, at its worst, provoke a further counter-backlash by Shias in Iraq and Lebanon, instigated by Iran.
But that's just one of many possible outcomes. Like throwing dice in a deadly game of chance. The Middle East in 2012 could turn out into a new version of the Balkans in 1914; albeit, with even higher stakes.