2. The Kurds: Syria's ethnic minorities may fare better than its religious ones. Syria's Kurds (roughly 9 percent of the population) are Sunnis and will be looking for increased recognition and perhaps autonomy. If cooler heads prevail in Turkey and among the Syrian opposition -- both of whom so far oppose that goal -- some kind of compromise might be reached. If not, the Kurds who now dominate much of Syria's border with Turkey will be a source of tension and conflict within Syria and with Turkey, forging ties with Iraqi Kurds and the Kurdistan Workers Party, commonly known as the PKK. It wouldn't take much imagination to envision Turkish incursions into Syria to hit Kurdish separatists and break up cooperation between Turkish and Syrian Kurds.
3. Israel: The good news for the Israelis is that Iran and Hezbollah will be weakened by Assad's fall. The bad news is that like so much of the Arab Spring/ Winter, the impending transition brings with it enormous uncertainty. What will happen to the 1974 disengagement agreement, which has made the Golan Heights the quietest space in the Middle East? What about Syria's chemical-weapons stockpiles, the largest in the region? What about foreign jihadists or the character of the new Syrian government? Will Syria revert back to the kind of instability that plagued the country before the Assads came to power? Will its government be influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood as in Egypt? If Iran feels encircled by hostile Sunnis, how acutely will the Israelis perceive the same challenge?
4. Turkey: Ankara is going to have to get used to the new Syria after enjoying a remarkably positive run with the Assads. Depending on the character of the Sunni government in Damascus, the Turks -- as the region's leading non-Arab Sunni power -- could become quite close to the new Syrian government, enhancing both their political and economic influence. Yet cooperation is far from a foregone conclusion. The Kurdish problem, as well as tensions between Turkish Sunnis and their own Alevis (the Turkish name for Alawites, who make up 15 percent of the population), could spark serious tensions and even violence.
5. Saudi Arabia: For the Saudis, the fall of the Assads carries real advantages if they can influence the new Sunni regime that emerges. The visit of Manaf Tlass -- the son of the former Sunni minister of defense -- to Saudi Arabia was an intriguing indication of what the Saudis may be thinking. Whether an establishment regime figure like Tlass would be acceptable to Free Syrian Army elements on the ground is another matter. But Syria will need friendly, rich Arabs. For Riyadh, Syria has been part of the great game of blocking Iranian influence. And if they don't overplay their Sunni cards -- and encourage the new government in Damascus to be inclusive with Alawites and Christians -- the Saudis might actually steal a march on Tehran.
6. The United States: Unlike the other authoritarian regimes it dealt with over the years, the United States never got much out of the Assads in matters of peacemaking or strategic advantage. A brutally repressive regime without much redemptive quality is on its way out -- and good riddance. For now, the biggest gain will be a weakening of Iran. But there could be a downside as well if Tehran becomes even more determined to push ahead with its nuclear weapons program. Assuming America doesn't intervene militarily, some ground will also have been lost among Syrians who believe it should have done something. But this can be recouped if Washington can help coordinate the international effort to address Syria's post-Assad needs.
The United States is an inherently status quo power, but it has values and interests that also compel it to support change. Its reaction to so much of the so-called Arab Spring reflects that ambivalence and will continue to do so in the future; it will also limit American influence in Syria. Should a Sunni regime emerge that is Islamist in character or just unstable, Washington will have an adequately tough time finding its balance. Just look at Egypt, where the U.S. has a strong relationship with the military and a thirty-year-old aid program, and still not much leverage. In Syria, it has almost no advantages. Nor does Washington have the resources to lead a multi-billion dollar reconstruction effort. Indeed, the only way Washington can possibly play a major role is if Syria follows Egypt and Jordan and signs a peace treaty with Israel. But the odds of this happening are slim to none.
The United States has much to lose if Syria devolves into sectarian conflict or worse, fragments. It has much to gain if it doesn't. But we need to be real here: Despite all the planning and working groups, Washington doesn't have much influence to shape the outcome either way. And let's face it: The struggle for Syria is going to be long and painful. If Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya -- despite all of their failings and dysfunction -- represent the best of what we can expect, Syria could easily come to represent the worst. And if that comes to pass, the Syrian story will end badly for everyone.