Who would have thought that exactly 100 years after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, we would see the Middle East become the scene again for another ruthless power struggle that has brought the entire region to the brink of collapse and chaos on a colossal scale? This is what is happening in most of North Africa, the Gulf and the Levant. A bloody conflict is draining the mental and economic energies of a region already beset by deep-seated troubles. The old map of the Middle East is redrawn in blood. This old map goes back to the heyday of European colonialism. The secret plan by the British and the French in 1916, which came to be known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, was a text-book example of classical imperialist adventure: divide up the Ottoman Empire between the British and the French, install loyal kings and governors in the newly established little vassal states and then wait for the riches of the Middle East to flow to European capitals.
A century later, the ghosts of imperialism are haunting us again. What was once held to be a regional Arab order is not anymore. The existing order is challenged by a combination of equally powerful factors: failed states (Syria, Libya, Yemen), weak governments (Iraq, Lebanon), occupation and war (Palestine), military coup and polarization (Egypt), violent extremism (ISIS, al Qaida), sectarian expansionism, identity politics, war lords, poverty, spy games and a ruthless and often not so smart power politics.
The key players from the U.S. and Europe to the Gulf states cannot agree on a common strategy because they have significantly different notions of national interest and competing visions for regional order. The fight against ISIS, the one issue that has united all countries over the last year and a half, is faltering because of the same reason. Despite hundreds of airstrikes and ground operations, ISIS is advancing in both Iraq and Syria. The former general and CIA director, David Petraus, says that the capture of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, by ISIS, is "a strategic loss in the sense that the narrative of ISIS being on the defensive - of losing - was shown to be somewhat hollow." The Iraqi forces may recapture Ramadi and even perhaps Mosul but ISIS maintains the strategic and tactical upper hand. To degrade ISIS and eliminate its terrorist threat now largely depends on ending the war in Syria and establishing a new security architecture and political order in Iraq. This, in turn, entails removing the Assad regime and instituting a political transition process that will include all Syrian groups and extend protection to Alawite and Christian minorities.
But even if ISIS is defeated, and let's hope it happens sooner than later, the crisis over the competing visions of regional order will continue to cause troubles. The Saudi-Iranian rivalry already has dangerous repercussions for sectarian conflict between Sunnis and the Shiite across the entire Muslim world. The suppression and persecution of moderate and legitimate Islamic political parties in the name of national security and fight against violent extremism is a self-defeating strategy in that it reinforces the claim that the system is unfair and must be destroyed at all costs. A functional and sustainable regional order will have to be based on legitimacy, justice and fair power equilibrium. This means a reassessment of the strategic and political position of the key players. First of all, the war in Syria must be brought to an end. Otherwise, the ISIS threat will spread and the regional proxy wars will continue to mount with heavy prices for all.
Secondly, Iran needs to retreat to its natural sphere of influence and position itself as a responsible regional power, not as a Shiite state. Iran has a historic opportunity to make a nuclear deal with the West; it should not squander it with dreams of regional expansionism. Thirdly, the Gulf countries should accept Iran as an equal partner and take care of their own Shiite populations so that they do not face the problem of multiple loyalties. The Shiite populations are equal citizens of their countries and deserve equal treatment as others. The majority Sunni populations should help in maintaining social peace and harmony.
Fourthly, Israel should end the occupation of Palestine, withdraw to the pre-1967 borders and make peace with Arab and Muslim countries. Recognizing the rights of Palestinians to a free, prosperous and dignified life is the only way to end decades of injustice that have warped the energies of an entire region. Instead of preaching God-given rights to sovereignty over land as Benjamin Netanyahu's new Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely recently said, the Israeli leaders should invest in peace rather than war, conflict and occupation. A non-occupier Israel can be part of a new regional order in the Middle East. Establishing a new regional order is not an easy task and will certainly not come by through some miracle. It will begin with a reassessment of our strategic priorities - a reassessment that will open new spaces of opportunity for all.