The Middle East right now is in a mess caused by both regional and extra-regional factors. Powerful sectarian forces and deep-rooted security and strategic considerations, inherent to the region, are pulling it in different directions and tearing apart its regional fabric and political structures. The emergence of non-state actors like ISIS and other groups fighting in Syria and Iraq has added to the complexity of the regional situation, making it more volatile and more difficult to resolve. The intervention by extra-regional forces including US, UK, France and Russia on the side of one or the party in the Middle East has turned the Middle East into a powder-keg, which is ready to explode with dangerous consequences for regional and international peace and security.

To understand the complexity of the situation in the Middle East and its ramifications, it is necessary to take a look at the region keeping in view its historical background. Three developments, more than anything else, have defined and driven the historical evolution of the Middle East since the middle of the 19th century. The first and foremost is the colonization and exploitation of the region and its natural resources by the European imperial powers notably UK and France. The process, which began in the 19th century, culminated in the establishment of the British and French mandates in the Middle East after World War I. The mandates, which handed over the administration of Palestine and Iraq to Great Britain and of Syria to France in accordance with the Sykes-Picot agreement, led to the carving out of Lebanon from Syria and of Jordan from Palestine to meet the peculiar requirements of the colonial powers. Egypt from 1882 till the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 remained under varying degrees of British control with the help of its occupation forces in the country although it acquired nominally an independent status in 1922.

Similarly, the territories in the Arabian Peninsula also suffered in one way or the other from the Western subjugation and exploitation. Iran also had been the subject of colonial excesses in the form of unequal and exploitative treaties imposed on it by Great Britain and US, and repeated military interventions by UK and Russia. The experience of occupation, humiliation and exploitation of the Middle Eastern countries has left behind deep-seated anger and resentment among its people against the Western powers.

As if this was not enough, Great Britain through the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which committed British support to the Zionists for the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, played a leading role in the creation of Israel in the heartland of the Arab world much to the grief and anguish of the Arabs, thus, further exacerbating their anger and resentment against the West. A lot of this anger was later directed against the US which was seen as the main supporter of the Israeli expansionist and aggressive designs against the Palestinians in violation of numerous UN resolutions.

Both the aforementioned factors are partly, if not mainly, responsible for the emergence of terrorist organizations and non-state actors encouraging and sponsoring acts of terrorism against targets in the West out of desperation in the face of the refusal of the Western states to check Israel’s expansionism and the inability of many of the Arab states to stand up to the US-led West. It is a pity that the US and several other Western countries in dealing with the monster of terrorism are more concerned with the symptoms rather than its root causes. This approach cannot but fuel the fire of terrorism further besides aggravating instability in the Middle East.

The third factor which has fed instability in the Middle East is the existence of non-representative and repressive regimes which also carry, generally speaking, the stigma of subservience to the West, itself a target of the Arab anger and resentment. Under these regimes, there are few outlets for the expression of the people’s views and hardly any opportunities for meeting their aspirations. The Arab Spring of 2011 was the direct consequence of the alienation of the Arab regimes from their people. Unfortunately, barring Tunisia, the Arab Spring failed to bring about the desired reforms in governance in the Arab world. Egypt, after a brief experiment with a democratically elected government, has reverted to a military dictatorship. But the most tragic is the situation in Syria and Yemen where people’s revolts have led to civil wars with the extensive involvement of outside powers motivated mostly by strategic and sectarian considerations.

In Syria, the forces of President Bashar al-Assad supported by Iran, Hizbullah and Russia are pitted against opposition forces supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, US and other Western powers. Besides Iran-Saudi rivalry, Sunni-Shia divide in the Muslim world is at play in the tragedy being enacted in Syria. Unfortunately, ISIS, a brutal and widely condemned terrorist organization, has succeeded in gaining control of large areas in Syria and Iraq. After some initial hesitation, it appears the US has now taken a strategic decision to focus on the defeat of ISIS in the first place, leaving the fate of the regime of Bashar al-Assad to the political process taking place under the aegis of the UN. The resolution adopted unanimously by the UN Security Council on 18 December recognizes the 17-nation International Syrian Support Group (ISSG) as the lead UN agency for promoting the peace process in Syria and validates the peace plan worked out by ISSG last month at Vienna including a cease-fire between the Syrian regime and opposition forces excluding ISIS in six months and talks leading to the drafting of a new constitution followed by fair and free elections within 18 months. It appears the fate of President Bashar al-Assad will be decided by the Syrian people in the elections although the resolution does not say anything clearly on the subject.

The civil war in Yemen in which Shia Houthis supported by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and allegedly also by Iran are arrayed against forces loyal to President Mansour Hadi supported by Saudi Arabia, UAE and other Sunni states rages on despite UN-sponsored peace talks. The latest round of talks in Switzerland in December to end the conflict between the two sides failed. The talks are expected to resume on 14 January, 2016 in another attempt to restore peace in the war-torn country. As in Syria, Iran-Saudi rivalry and Shia-Sunni sectarian difference are fueling the conflict in Yemen. Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS supporters have also stepped into the political void created by the Yemeni conflict on the lines of what happened in Iraq where ISIS took advantage of the Sunni alienation from the Shia-dominated regime in Baghdad to bring a large territory under its control. The developments in Iraq highlight the adverse effects of the US invasion of Iraq of 2003 in fomenting instability in the country and the region.

The ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, the politically fragile character of many regimes in the region, and continuing ethnic and sectarian rivalries are sure to change the political map of the Middle East in the coming years. Pakistan would be well advised to keep away from these intra-Arab conflicts guided by the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states and peaceful settlement of disputes. Wherever appropriate, we should offer our good offices for calming the things down and for promoting peace and moderation. We should also extend our firm support to the efforts to combat terrorism.

The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.