We aren't talking about recounts of Iowa caucuses making Rick Santorum the winner or the Phoenix-like resurrection of Newt Gingrich in South Carolina. In this case, catalytic surprises that could change the course of history (and keep some of us awake at night) are deserving of even passing discussion.
The collapse of the euro and possibly the European Union will surprise no one. By itself, military action in the Persian Gulf either by or against Iran is similarly not a real surprise scenario. But taken in conjunction with a potential Syrian civil war in which the West faced a Libyan-like humanitarian disaster with thousands of lives at stake -- and military intervention would be considered on those grounds alone -- recollections of July 1914 aren't a stretch.
For the moment, the likelihood of military conflict in the Persian Gulf is receding. Iran has lowered the temperature of its rhetoric. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barack has publicly stated that Israel has no plans to strike Iran's nuclear facilities for the short and possibly very long term. The European Union's decision to expanding stiffer economic embargoes against Iran oil exports proposed by the United States could force Iranian counter actions.
That said, and despite rumors that the Arab League might convince Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down voluntarily to be replaced by his vice president a la the Yemeni and Egyptian precedents, Syria isn't far removed from civil war.
If conditions worsen and civil war erupts in which hundreds of thousands of Syrians are put in grave danger, what might happen next? Herein rests the makings of a nightmarish scenario that will provoke not cure insomnia.
In such a scenario, Syria is disintegrating. With growing violence against civilians, several army divisions defect to the rebels igniting civil war. Damascus becomes a battle ground. Like his father before him, Assad ruthlessly and indiscriminately attacks and destroys a small city killing thousands in a gesture of rage and defiance aimed at ending all resistance to his rule.
The international community predictably responds with verbal outrage and threatens even tougher embargoes and air and sea blockades. But the Arab League and U.N. Security Council are deadlocked over taking stronger action. Unlike the Libyan episode, Russia and China exercise vetoes rather than abstaining.
Refugees flee to Syria's borders with Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq where many of the crossings have been blocked creating further humanitarian crises in dealing with what is estimated as upward of 1 million displaced people.
NATO begins intense discussions over options, deferring the subject of direct military intervention as being in the "too hard" category with its publics irretrievably divided over whether to use force to prevent further bloodshed.
Iran, fearing outside military intervention will produce a regime change and a subsequent government not disposed to Tehran, calls for "volunteers" to fight in Syria with the Baathists. Media reports that hundreds of thousands of Iranians are enlisting in this cause.
Israel reinforces the Golan Heights and its small border with Syria and refuses passage for escaping refugees. Turkey does likewise. Only Jordan accepts a small number of refugees and reportedly larger numbers flee into Iraq and Lebanon.
What to do? Western intervention will be seen by many Syrians as an invasion and violation of national sovereignty. Almost certainly, any intervention will be resisted by a significant number of Syrians and the nearly 400,000-person strong Syrian army.
To counter this strategic threat, Iran marshals its forces to aid Assad. Iran also contemplates shutting the Strait of Hormuz, threatening the West with the prospect of a two front war precipitated by a Syrian intervention and, of course, a huge spike in oil prices. Meanwhile, video from Syria depicts the killing of civilians intensifying pleas for action.
Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip elect to use the crisis to paralyze Israel through massive terror and rocket attacks. Israel mobilizes its army in response to those attacks and deteriorating conditions in Syria. And its government begins debate on whether to hit Iran's nuclear facilities in part to precipitate military action by the West and NATO that will result in a new and friendlier government in Tehran.
With November elections in the United States closing in, the administration would be politically damned no matter what it path it takes. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have taken their toll and war in Syria could easily escalate to include Iran. Yet, the deaths of many thousands of Syrians broadcast nightly are seemingly unacceptable.
What to do? This is a nightmarish question that hopefully will never arise. But if it does …
(Harlan Ullman is chairman of the Killowen Group, which advises leaders of government and business, and senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)