CAIRO — The black flag of jihad flies over much of northern Syria. In the center of the country, pro-government militias and Hezbollah fighters battle those who threaten their communities. In the northeast, the Kurds have effectively carved out an autonomous zone.
After more than two years of conflict, Syria is breaking up. A constellation of armed groups battling to advance their own agendas are effectively creating the outlines of separate armed fiefs. As the war expands in scope and brutality, its biggest casualty appears to be the integrity of the Syrian state.
On Thursday, President Obama met in Washington with the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and once again pressed the idea of a top-down diplomatic solution. That approach depends on the rebels and the government agreeing to meet at a peace conference that was announced last week by the United States and Russia.
“We’re going to keep increasing the pressure on the Assad regime and working with the Syrian opposition,” Mr. Obama said. “We are going to keep working for a Syria that is free of Assad’s tyranny.”
But as evidence of massacres and chemical weapons mounts, experts and Syrians themselves say the American focus on change at the top ignores the deep fractures the war has caused in Syrian society. Increasingly, it appears Syria is so badly shattered that no single authority is likely to be able to pull it back together any time soon.
Instead, three Syrias are emerging: one loyal to the government, to Iran and to Hezbollah; one dominated by Kurds with links to Kurdish separatists in Turkey and Iraq; and one with a Sunni majority that is heavily influenced by Islamists and jihadis.
“It is not that Syria is melting down — it has melted down,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.”
“So much has changed between the different parties that I can’t imagine it all going back into one piece,” Mr. Tabler said.
Fueling the country’s breakup are the growing brutality of fighters on all sides and the increasingly sectarian nature of the violence.
Recent examples abound. Pro-government militias have hit coastal communities, targeting Sunni Muslim civilians. Sunni rebel groups have attacked religious shrines of other sects. A video circulating this week showed a rebel commander in Homs cutting out an enemy’s heart and liver, and biting into the heart.
Analysts say this shift in the nature of the violence will have a greater effect on the country’s future than territorial gains on either side by making it less likely that the myriad ethnic and religious groups that have long called Syria home will go back to living side by side. As the momentum seesaws back and forth between rebels and the government, the geographic divisions are hardening.
After steadily losing territory to rebels during the first two years of the conflict, government forces have progressed on a number of key fronts in recent weeks, routing rebel forces in the southern province of Dara’a, outside Damascus and in the central city of Homs and its surrounding villages.
These victories not only reflect strategic shifts by government forces but also could further solidify the country’s divisions.
Since mass defections of mostly conscripted soldiers shrank the government’s forces earlier in the uprising, it has largely given up on trying to reclaim parts of the country far from the capital, said Joseph Holliday, a fellow with the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
Instead, the government has focused on solidifying its grip on a strip of land that extends from the capital, Damascus, in the south, up to Homs in the country’s center and west to the coastal area heavily populated by Mr. Assad’s sect, the Alawites.
Other than hitting them with airstrikes or artillery, Mr. Assad has made little effort to reclaim rebel-held areas in the country’s far north and east.
Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, and Michael D. Shear from Washington.