Syria may well be the last major domino to fall in the Arab Spring. But the fog of war and a tangle of overarching power struggles make it difficult to discern at this stage how a functioning democracy can rise from the wreckage of the Assad regime - and if so, at what price to the neighbourhood.
The Saudi, Gulf and Jordanian monarchies, for now at least, have dodged the reform push - by a brutal put-down in the case of Bahrain; by splashing cash bribes worth billions in the case of the Saudi regime.
But as the last of a dictator class who stole power in a coup, or in this case inherited it from his coup-making father, Bashar al-Assad's days are numbered. And chaotic as the rest of the uprisings of the Arab Spring have been, the revolt in Syria is perhaps the most powerful in terms of its capacity to rock the region. The stakes for its neighbours - real and potential - cannot be exaggerated.
Under the umbrella of a new Cold War-era stand-off between Washington and Europe on one side, and Moscow and Beijing on the other, the collapse of Syria will makes Iran's Shiia leadership more vulnerable in three crucial regional and global stand-offs: the US-led drive to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions; its challenge to Israel for the balance of regional power; and its head-butting with Saudi Arabia in the Sunni-Shiia contest unleashed by the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Assad's demise will create a fourth problem for Iran, by hyping the nationalist aspirations of its northern Kurdish community - estimated to be as many as 8 million people or 10 per cent of the Iranian population.
But this is a problem Tehran will share with Baghdad, Ankara and whatever new governing entity finally emerges in Damascus.
The area called Kurdistan straddles the common borders of these four nations and is home to as many as 35 million Kurds. Their dreams of an autonomous existence have been rekindled by the success of the Kurds in carving out a thriving, self-governed space in the north of Iraq.
In Syria a decision by Assad's generals to deploy troops normally stationed in the northern Kurdish communities to the front line defence of the capital, Damascus, and the country's biggest city, Aleppo, has buoyed Syria's 2 million-plus Kurds, who now claim to be ''in control'' of their towns.
Turkey, home to the greatest concentration of Kurds, fears Syria will become a sanctuary for its outlawed Kurdish separatist movement.
In a bid to prevent general Syrian violence spilling over the border and to curb Kurdish excitement, Turkish forces this week moved tanks and other heavy weapons to the border region and a dozen members of the separatist movement PKK were killed in a series of raids. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, warned: ''We can never overlook such developments threatening our security.''
Splits over which side should be supported in the Syrian conflict are causing knife-edge tension in the region, reportedly provoking Washington to step in last week, to defuse a stand-off between Iraqi Kurdistan's Peshmerga fighters, who support the Syrian rebels, and forces of the Shiite government in Baghdad, which is siding with Assad's Shiite-aligned Alawite regime and with Tehran.
Similar stand-offs are happening in Lebanon. There, a small Alawite community and the Iran-Syria sponsored Hezbollah militia and political movement have thrown their weight behind the beleaguered Assad, provoking violent clashes.
Ironically, it was a greater military role for Syria in Lebanon after the 1989 Taif Agreement that stabilised the country in the aftermath of 15 years of war - but now conflict in Syria is reopening old wounds.
Acknowledging the threat of spillover violence to their dysfunctional system of government, all sides in Lebanon have pleaded for calm.
The death toll in Syria - now put at more than 20,000 - could dampen the ardour of reformists in neighbouring Jordan, where the regime fears the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood will want any gains that are made by their brothers in Syria.
Bahrain remains an ugly mirror image of Syria - in the tiny Gulf state, a minority Sunni regime lords it over a Shiite majority. The US has resumed arms sales to the royal family, prompting an angry Washington Post editorial to assert this week: ''Many in the Middle East understandably wonder why the US demands the removal of Mr Assad … while continuing to back a Sunni regime that represses its Shiite opposition.'' Amid all this, a Western chorus is urging greater material support for the Syrian rebels - most recently, it includes the defeated French president Nicolas Sarkozy, the former British defence minister Malcolm Rifkind and the former US presidential candidate Republican Senator John McCain.
Watching it all unfold, with increasing anxiety is Israel.
Reports that the US and Israel are discussing the possibility of air strikes to destroy Syria's chemical weapons arsenal and post-collapse planning that some might interpret as a precursor to a foreign occupation of some sort were the backdrop to a warning this week by a senior Iranian security official, who was quoted on Syrian TV: ''Iran will not allow the axis of resistance, of which it considers Syria to be an essential part, to be broken in any way.''
Apart from developments in Syria and Israel's long-standing push for the US to opt for military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities, Israel finds itself surrounded by widening uncertainty.
To the north, Hezbollah has tens of thousands of rockets which Israel fears could be unleashed as part of an Iranian or Syrian bid to widen the Syrian conflict - which would be in keeping with the quip from a Syrian security officers who told a foreign visitor: ''My friend, we can burn down the entire region.''
As a raft of dictators who might have been bought and sold give way to popularly-elected governments, Israel is less certain about its peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, both of them cornerstones to years of relative peace; just as it is about the will or capacity of new governments in the region to crack down on anti-Israeli activity.
This war has a way to play before we get to these more thorny regional and international problems.
Assad is still well armed and has the backing of Moscow, Beijing and Tehran. Considered analysts warn that the regime is reverting to a ruthless militia-style operation that could provoke a Lebanon-style civil war, particularly given the divisions among the rebel fighters and the political opposition.
One of the most explosive elements of this dire equation is the fate of the regime-aligned Alawite community. Aligned with Shiia Iran and Iraq, they are the targets of intense rebel bitterness. In a sober warning, a report this week by the International Crisis Group warns: ''Syria's future largely depends on the Alawites' fate.''
The group's rationale works thus': in marginalising the Alawites, the rebels will be planting the seeds of the next conflagration. That, in turn, would exacerbate well-grounded fears among other Syrian minorities, like the Kurds, Druze, Christians and Ismailis, and leave them to wonder if they were to be next. It concludes: ''If Alawites cannot find their rightful place in it, Syria will face the likely prospect of instability, civil strife and fragmentation.''
Among regional experts competing for attention for their line of thinking on the fate of Syria and the region, Tufts University's Vali Nasr singles out the Sunni-Shiite strand as the one that matters most in this bowl of spaghetti.
In The New York Times last year, Nasr was insightful: ''The war in Iraq first unleashed the destructive potential of their competition for power, but the issue was not settled there.
''The Arab Spring has allowed it to resurface by weakening states that have long kept sectarian divisions in place, and brutally suppressed popular grievances. Today, Shiites clamour for greater rights in Lebanon, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, while Sunnis are restless in Iraq and Syria.''
The prospect of Syria and perhaps even neighbouring countries becoming the setting for a real or proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran, Sunnis versus Shiites, has caused some analysts to speculate on a bigger sectarian conflict - possibly from Lebanon, through Iraq, to the Gulf and beyond.
Acknowledging the paradox of where his thinking was taking him, the veteran CIA analyst and former Obama adviser Bruce Riedel, last month urged that an Arab and/or Muslim foreign force be inserted into Syria after the fall of Assad - to protect the minority Alawite community.
Despite the tens of thousands of Syrians already fleeing, neighbouring countries have yet to be confronted by an Afghan or Iraqi-style refugee onslaught - but they will.
And like every other element of this equation, drill down into the refugee issues and greater difficulties become apparent - Jordan is allowing thousands of Syrians to take refuge, but it is denying access to some of the half-million Palestinian refugees who live in camps in Syria, one of which was attacked this week.
That crisis group report observes: ''17 months of bloodshed and destruction have not been enough for either the regime or its opposition to put forth a proposal that does not involve eradication of the other.'' Therein we can find a meaning for the line from a former Obama official quoted in The Guardian: ''Syria won't implode - it will explode.''