This scenario outlines how the sectarian, ethnic, and geopolitical cleavages that have roiled Middle East politics for decades are further widened by the escalating stalemate inside Syria. As with the “Contained Civil War” scenario below, outside actors furnish arms and funds to their respective clients at a level sufficient to safeguard their interests, while trying to avoid direct engagement in the hostilities. In this “Regionalized Conflict” scenario, however, events on the ground trump these calculations, rendering a strategy of calibrated violence unfeasible. Escalated fighting fans sectarian hatreds and murderous campaigns against civilian populations. As the country fragments along sectarian and ethnic lines, attitudes harden and hopes for a negotiated settlement are doused. As regional players respond in kind to shifting dynamics in the fighting with increased support to their faction of choice, momentary advantages enjoyed by one side are eventually countered by others, producing an uncontainable stalemate.
A regionalized conflict is, in fact, already well under way, with regional powers contending for influence through (imperfectly controlled) proxies, sectarian violence and refugee outflows threatening the fragile sectarian and ethnic fabric of nearby states, and increasing armed clashes across borders. While the “Contained Civil War” scenario imagines how these forces might be managed, this scenario suggests how inherently tenuous such a “managed” stalemate would be.