Syria has already been shattered by more than four years of civil war, and with no solution in sight, some players on the ground and observers outside have concluded its fate will be to break up along sectarian or regional lines—in a best-case scenario, tenuously held together by a less centralized state, as in Bosnia. A true partition would risk yet more mayhem, including ethnic or sectarian cleansing and battle over every bend in the border. But so spectacular is Syria's disaster that many wonder whether its disparate groups can share a unifying national sentiment again. In all, half the prewar population of 23 million has been displaced and a quarter million killed, propelling a huge wave of refugees to neighboring countries and now to Europe.
The government, dominated by President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect, controls Damascus, the Alawite heartland along the Mediterranean coast, other cities, and connecting corridors in between. Kurds run their own affairs in the northeast. ISIS controls much of the Sunni heartland in the east. Other Sunni rebels control pockets in the north and south. The Druze remain loyal but are starting to talk about autonomy in their southern areas as well. "Syria as we've known it since it was formed 100 years ago—it's finished, I think," says a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "What the international community will have to recognize is de facto partition, and work with different parties to try and stabilize those areas." (Read more Syria stories.)