The battle between President Assad’s regime and the Free Syrian Army is a life-or-death struggle. But whatever its outcome, this is a civil war being fought on a faultline that threatens the entire Middle East

A Free Syrian Army fighter reacts after his friend was shot by the Syrian army, Aleppo, August 2012

A Free Syrian Army fighter reacts after his friend was shot by Syrian army troops in Aleppo. Photograph: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

When power starts to shift in the Middle East, its people have long known what to expect. Challenges to authority have rarely been met with a promise of consensus or inclusion. Strong-arm suppression – the more forceful the better – has been the default reaction to dissent. The price has usually been brutal.

Syrians who wanted an end to regime dominance knew the rules when they started demanding changes in the region’s most uncompromising police state in March last year. Now, 18 months and more than 23,000 bodies later, and with no end in sight to the chaos ravaging the country, their worst fears are being realised on a scale that continues both to horrify and numb.

And yet, the events of the past 18 months have shattered one of the abiding guidelines to life under totalitarian rule – that absolute power is uncontestable. If anything has so far been achieved through the bedlam now rumbling through Syria and indeed other parts of the Arab world, it is a new reality: the power of the street has exposed the fragility of authority.

“I had always said they would fall over when we were no longer scared of them,” Moustafa Abu Khalil, a retired electricity worker from the northern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughour, told me in June. “It took a long time to get to the point where people were prepared to risk everything, their families, their futures, just to bring about change. “The truth be told, [the people] probably wouldn’t have got here if the regime did not continue to escalate the violence every month. That just fed the flames. And now we have a true revolution, civil war, call it what you will. It is a point of no return.”

With all of Syria’s cities now under siege, its capital Damascus and commercial hub Aleppo engulfed in violence, Syria seems well past that proverbial point. Defections have whittled down the strength and numbers of the country’s vaunted military and destruction and misery is seriously testing the resolve of both regime supporters and those who want Bashar al-Assad gone.

The country’s economy has been under the anaconda-like grip of international sanctions, which have ground industry to a halt, crippled trade supply lines, battered the currency and shattered confidence. In the hard-hit north, little works any more. War has seen Syrian society, already stuck – seemingly permanently in 1973 – wound back even further. There are more donkey carts than cars on the streets of some towns between Aleppo and the Turkish border. Clapped-out tractors belch fumes from precious fuel that is sold in two-litre bottles on rubbish-strewn roadsides for around $8 (£5).

“None of us can afford it,” says Abu Nour, a member of the Free Syrian Army, who, before the Syrian uprising gained momentum, was a tailor whose only military experience was 15 months as a conscript more than a decade ago. “I’m not sure where the money is coming from to get us to the frontline. Those things a person like me doesn’t ask.”

Abu Nour is now a foot soldier in the rebel army that is at the vanguard of the fight for Syria’s destiny. Drawn largely from the rural poor, and also represented by conservative Islamic groupings such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the FSA has taken the battle to the country’s two lead cities, where it is now engaged in a fight to the death with the regime army.

Rebel groups entered Aleppo and Damascus in mid-July and their early gains sparked predictions that four decades of uncompromising rule was about to end. But as a withering summer draws to a close across the northern plains that have harboured Aleppo, and the central plateau on which Damascus, the world’s oldest capital has stood for more than 6,000 years, this early optimism has yielded to a more unpalatable reality – that neither side is about to secure a decisive victory in either city anytime soon.

The soaring death toll this week in Damascus, where more than 300 people were reportedly killed in one day alone, and the grinding misery in the battlefield suburbs of Aleppo, have left many in Syria – and in the rest of the ever-more restive region – wondering what comes next.

“Change of this scale is perilous,” says Rita Sabbagh, a Damascus businesswoman who supports the regime. “You must understand that meaningful shifts in thinking and behaviour take generations in this part of the world. Did they really think they would just ride into town like this and the regime would run away?”

Were he to try to cut a deal with Syria’s fractious opposition groups or to capitulate to their demands, the downside for Assad and the regime he inherited from his father is obvious. Also increasingly clear, even to lay observers, is the scale of the risk to Syria’s neighbours if the civil war continues to expose regional fault lines that have remained unaddressed throughout the modern history of the region.

After the 500-year Ottoman empire disintegrated more than 90 years ago, the borders of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and what was to become Israel were defined – often on imperial whim. The pact between Britain and France that led to Syria’s independence, known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, cobbled together various sects under the banner of nation states, which have not coexisted easily.

For more than 40 years, the Alawite sect, which is loosely aligned to Shia Islam and had long been persecuted under the Ottomans, has been used to solidify regime control. Most of the key regime figures, including the Assads, have been Alawites ever since Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, was at the peak of his powers. Despite comprising around 12% of Syria’s population, the Alawites dominate the Syrian establishment and hold most key positions in the military and security apparatus. Now, as Syria wobbles, the sect feels a deep sense of threat from the country’s majority Sunnis, some of whom hold grudges against the regime because of its treatment towards them before the uprising.

“Egypt and Libya have taught us that the way that power works [now] in Syria does not have to be the way it will always be,” said Mohammed Hariri at one of Aleppo’s frontline zones earlier this month. A realignment of power appears to be top of the wish list for many fighters and residents alike in Syria’s opposition strongholds. But such a shift will not be contained within Syria’s borders – a fact that is causing increasing alarm outside the country and fuelling fears that changes more profound than anything since the fall of the Ottomans are starting to take place in the Middle East.

In neighbouring Lebanon, long under the tutelage of Syria to the east and the influence of other players, such as Saudi Arabia, the United States, France and Israel, the tension is palpable. “I’m afraid that if things are to stay like that, it could lead to the partitioning of Syria and where that will lead the Middle East, don’t ask me,” the leader of Lebanon’s Druze sect, Walid Jumblatt, told the Guardian earlier this month. “Big historical cities will be destroyed. Assad might take refuge in the mountains. Now he is trying to cleanse the Sunnis from Latakia, Benyas, Tartous. It seems the map of Syria is being changed. What is left of the famous Sykes-Picot agreement is being changed.”

Along with Jumblatt, other Lebanese leaders broadly aligned to the west or Saudi Arabia have been laying low this summer. The country’s former prime minister, Saad Hariri – whose father, the Lebanese elder statesman Rafiq Hariri, was assassinated in 2005 – has been in self-imposed exile in Riyadh and Paris for the past 18 months.

Samir Geagea, a political ally of the Hariri, who leads a prominent Christian political bloc, survived a failed attempt by a sniper to shoot him in his garden in June. The arrest earlier this month of Lebanon’s former information minister, Michel Samaha, a key ally of Bashar al-Assad, has given weight to the fears that assassins are lurking.

Samaha has been charged with receiving explosives and instructions from Syria’s national security chief, General Ali Mamlouk, allegedly with the knowledge of Assad, to target 20 key figures in Lebanon. He was entrapped by a close aide who filmed him saying Assad was personally aware of the plans. His case is now before a military tribunal, a rare event in Lebanon, where state institutions have often failed to assert their independence.

In Iraq, where assassins have remained a part of the political fabric for much of the past eight years, there is also a growing fear that the chaos in Syria cannot be contained. Islamist groups that wreaked havoc between 2004 and 2007 have announced that they are trying to reclaim ground they lost during fighting with US forces and militias that were at the time backed by the US and Iraqi governments. They claim to be drawing inspiration from the Syrian uprising, which has in part been joined by a new dynamic – jihadists from other parts of the Arab world, some of whom see the fighting taking place in Syria as part of a global jihad.

“They are trying to make their presence felt again,” the director general of the intelligence division at Iraq’s interior ministry, Major General Ali Hussein Kamal, explained earlier this month. “They see what is happening in Syria as a chance for them.”

Sitting in his fortified office in a riverside Baghdad suburb, Kamal claimed that Syria’s insistence that the uprising against it is a foreign-led plot using jihadists was at odds with Iraq’s recent dealings with Syria. “In 2009, the bombs that targeted the ministries could clearly be traced back to Syria,” he said. “Both in planning and instruction.”

Asked whether he believed that regime figures had known of the bombing campaign, in which huge bombs targeted the finance, foreign and justice ministries, as well as the Baghdad governor’s offices, killing more than 200 people, Kamal said: “I refer you to the comments of the defected Syrian ambassador to Iraq who said the regime had close links to al-Qaida and had links to the recent bombings in Damascus.”

A man reacts after an airstrike on Azaz, 15 August 2012A man reacts after an airstrike on Azaz destroyed 10 buildings on 15 August 2012. Photograph: APAs Aleppo has burned, the regime counter-assault in Damascus has been relentless over the past fortnight. The Syrian army has warned of “inevitable death” for rebel fighters who don’t put down their weapons in areas known as opposition strongholds. Anti-regime neighbourhoods say they have little reason to trust that pledges of amnesties will be honoured by a military that has shown no quarter in more than a year of battles with rebels. And, as sectarian positions harden, in an increasingly volatile region, there appears little reason for the regime to decide that now would be a time for compromise.

Iran, which has viewed Syria as its key ally in the Arab world for much of the past 30 years, has shown signs of increasing belligerence as the situation in Syria has deteriorated. The fall of Damascus would be a serious strategic blow for Tehran, as it would for its key ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, which has enjoyed staunch support and patronage from both regimes since 1982.

Also unflinchingly in Syria’s corner is Russia, which has acted to prevent even more severe international sanctions or any move towards direct foreign intervention in the conflict. Russia’s ties to the Syrian regime date back to Soviet days and have, in many ways, post-dated them. Libya and Egypt had at times been in the Soviet sphere. Syria, meanwhile, has barely left it despite the end of the cold war more than 20 years ago.

Late last month, in a grand villa in the Aleppo hinterland that belongs to the family of General Hikmat Shehabi, a former confidante of Hafez al-Assad who left Syria shortly after his son was named president, rebels thumbed through old books on a lounge room shelf. One had been signed by the late North Korean dictator, Kim Jung-il. There were also tomes in tribute to Assad Sr and eulogies to the achievements of Soviet society. Time had stood still in the dusty marble mansion, just as it had on the drab empty streets outside where this society in the north of a country deeply embroiled in revolution seemed collectively unsure about what to do next.

“Nobody has come to help us,” said Khalid Ibrahim, a steel worker who joined the rebel army when dwindling business closed his workshop earlier this year. A Russian-made Mig fighter jet circled nearby as Ibrahim pressed his point. “We knew what we were up against when we took this on, but in Libya the Americans were there within a month. France and Britain were fighting each other to be the first to bomb Gaddafi. And Assad is worse, much, much worse.” He shook his head, then added: “This could be a disaster, or a new map. Only God knows which way it will go.”

In dozens of conversations the Guardian has had with Syrians in recent months – some diehard regime backers and others just as deeply committed to the opposition cause – a clear sense has emerged that the popular uprising that started it all in the southern city of Deraa has been dwarfed by something far more significant.

The arc of revolution that started in Tunisia, surged through Egypt, then raged through Libya, has hit an obstacle in Syria, one that may prove difficult as a whole for the region to bypass. “History has hijacked what the people were trying to achieve,” says Amal Kuzbari, a Syrian teacher from Homs, now a refugee in southern Turkey. “It was simple at the beginning and it isn’t now.

The fight for Syria has become a struggle for the destiny of the region. It is also now a clash of ideologies and orders, of sects and societies. The battle for regional influence runs straight through Damascus and none of the region’s main players are willing to yield ground. “It’s Sunni versus Shia, Arab versus Persian, America versus Russia, the list goes on,” says a western diplomat. “This is unfinished business on many levels.”

What will emerge from Syria’s civil war will likely take many months to determine. A rapid end to the regime would not mean an end to crisis. The vacuum that would follow the end of strongman rule would take some filling – the recent experience of Iraq to the east, another sectarian state bound together by an autocrat, clearly demonstrates that.

Even states such as Turkey, with strong borders and robust institutions, will remain susceptible to Syria’s spillover effects. Turkey is now hosting around 40,000 Syrian refugees and said earlier this year that it has prepared contingencies for up to 500,000. However, if Syria’s Kurds decide that the crumbling of state authority gives them the chance to push their case for statehood, Turkey will be facing more than a refugee crisis.

“Changing how power works [in the region] is a good thing,” explains a Syrian exile in Beirut, who claims to support neither side. “But I’m not sure people know exactly what it is they have started.”