As the Arab Spring blossomed two years ago, a heady breeze brought hopes of democracy, human rights and a better life to countries across the Middle East and North Africa, including Syria.
But while dictatorships fell in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, President Bashar al-Assad clung to power in Damascus, unleashing a brutal crackdown on what began as a peaceful pro-reform movement.
The response on the street was no surprise. As many Syrians clung to the belief that peaceful tactics could change things, an ever-growing number took up arms.
Two years on, Syria is mired in a devastating civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people, forced a million to flee with millions more displaced at home or missing, and an economic and humanitarian disaster.
Rebels have seized large swathes of territory, but growing tensions between liberals and moderate Muslims on the one hand, and powerful Islamists on the other, have raised fears Syria could collapse in a new sectarian bloodbath.
The United Nations said bluntly this week that “Syria is spiralling towards full-scale disaster.”
Paris-Sud professor of international relations Khattar Abou Diab told AFP: “Syria is collapsing. World powers will act only when they realise that the country is becoming a new Somalia.”
That was a chilling reference to the fragmented Horn of Africa country where a weak central government and Islamists have battled unsuccessfully for years.
For now, both the rebels and Assad are intransigent, with neither a military nor a political end in sight.
It began on March 15, 2011, when youths in the southern city of Daraa scrawled on school walls the main chant of the Arab Spring: “The people want the fall of the regime.”
Activists say they were jailed and tortured, helping to spark the uprising.
In power for 40 years, the Assad clan believed it could quell the revolt, just as Bashar’s father and predecessor Hafez did in 1982, when he crushed a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama, killing between 10,000 and 40,000 people.
In Tunisia and Egypt, the army turned its back on the top echelons of power, but Syria’s army, led by officers from Assad’s Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, has remained loyal.
Defections from regime ranks have multiplied but still failed to strike the core.
And while defectors once formed the kernel of the rebel Free Syrian Army, insurgent ranks now include disparate groups including jihadist fighters from abroad.
— Formidable firepower —
The military has formidable firepower, and clashes with poorly armed rebels have reduced many cities to rubble, and in Libya, where demands for reform also turned to civil war, dictator Moamer Kadhafi also had a powerful war machine.
But the diplomatic climate there was different, and Western powers quickly imposed a no-fly zone and provided insurgents with weapons and training.
The world is divided over Syria, where unflinching support from long-time Damascus ally Russia and China has prevented the United Nations from adopting a unified posture.
Even countries such as the United States, Britain and France that have demanded Assad’s departure are not providing the heavy weaponry that the rebels need to prevail.
They fear such weapons could fall into the hands of Muslim extremists, so have limited themselves to providing non-lethal support to rebels and sanctioning the inflexible regime.
Nadim Shehadeh from the Chatham House think-tank in London said that “as long as the Obama administration doesn’t want to intervene in Syria, and it doesn’t, Assad will feel comfortable.”
“The Americans are more worried about what will happen after Assad than by Assad himself.”
Experts and diplomats say Islamist groups are financed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Mainstream insurgents say they are poorly equipped and have made repeated calls for more international arms backing, but as they run short of arms, jihadists such as the previously unknown jihadist Al-Nusra Front have taken centre stage.
A security vacuum has given rise to spiralling crime and, worryingly, kidnappings and killings driven by sectarian hatred between Sunni Muslims and Alawites.
The exiled opposition, also fragmented, has frequently condemned the world’s “silence.” When its leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib proposed a dialogue with regime figures, this only further split the dissident ranks.
Damascus says it is ready to talk, but its rhetoric remains unchanged. Assad believes the war is against “terrorists” and Syria faces a “global conspiracy.”
While the regime focuses on Damascus and the route to the Alawite region on the coast, fears mount of sectarian partition.
“The worst result would be a division of power along sectarian lines, similar to Lebanon. This would lead to long-term war,” Abou Diab said.