The Arab Spring, which began about three years ago, precipitated a region-wide upheaval, leading to toppled governments, the rise of political Islam, the collapse of states and societies and a reversion to old tribal, ethnic structures. This process, in turn, has also brought us to the brink of a strategic upheaval, giving us the opportunity to redraw the Middle East and its future.
One of the clearest signs of this turmoil was the total loss of hope by the motivating actors: youth groups, liberals, advocates for change and those demanding greater transparency from their governments, where corruption had become an ingrained tradition. The impassioned, energetic individuals who started the regional uprising feel as though the revolution has been taken from them, usurped by conservative, anti-democratic governments in the name of Islam or in the name of the nationalist military.
Regional stability was one of the main casualties of the recent turmoil. Societies have fragmented. Militant, fundamentalist Islamist groups have insidiously penetrated the various battlefronts. Groups, organizations and militias are fighting against the remnants of regimes such as the one in Syria, or else battling each other in the name of Allah, Shariah and Islam. Syria, Libya, Lebanon and Egypt have become breeding grounds for organizations that condone and engage in macabre acts of terror against civilians who, although they are not actively involved in the fighting, are suspected of supporting this or that group or identifying with this or that organization or the existing regime. Religious minorities, especially Christians, have been horrifically persecuted, almost totally annihilated, slaughtered. An influx of jihadist warriors from every corner of the globe, especially Europe, have flocked to the region, exacerbating the conflict and bumping up the death toll.
The regional upheaval has started to break out from the confines of Middle Eastern countries. Its effects have started to trickle out toward Europe and the rest, tied to critical international matters and threatening international stability and harmony. The consequences of this turmoil are not unilateral; they effect the international community's dealings with Iran, the pressurized relationship between the U.S., Russia and China, bolstering the first two while discrediting the U.S. -- which many believe is now a waning superpower. The upheaval has shaped the atmosphere of the war and individual events as well.
The convulsion has crippled previous loyalties, replacing them with bitter suspicions and new regional interests. Friendships have been severed (Turkey and Syria) and leery adversaries are inching closer together (Saudi Arabia and Israel). Joint strategic interests -- such as those shared by Israel and Egypt -- have sharpened. The U.S. has lost its prestige and standing, Russia has become a significant, influential player and China is assessing the situation on the sidelines, planning its foray and clearing paths of influence.
Feeling their day has finally dawned, ethnic minorities such as the Kurds are trying to manifest their nationalist ambitions, working toward a new political reality such as political autonomy in Iraq and semi-autonomy in Syria. The Kurds believe the current circumstances are ripe for unifying their disparate regions in four bordering nations (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey). Other minorities, such as the Christian populations in Syria and Iraq, warily eye the rise of extremist Islam while tragically experiencing the helplessness of their authorities, which are desperately hanging on for dear life.
The bloody winter that followed the Arab Spring has changed the extent of threats, challenges and opportunities facing Israel, illustrating the volatile nature of the region. Israel is considered an island of stability and sanity amid turbulent seas. Region heavyweights such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia also view Israel as one of the only countries with a correct reading of the Middle Eastern map. They also believe Israel is the only country ready to act decisively against a nuclear Iran.
There are many ethno-religious minorities that also realized from the recent turmoil what they already knew, namely that Israel is the only place where minorities can live in dignity and maintain their faiths and traditional ways of life. In the current reality, the map of interests is being flipped around, old alliances are being ripped asunder and loyalties are falling apart and forming elsewhere. But, and maybe this is more important than anything else, new opportunities have presented themselves. We now have the chance, despite all the dangers, to reimagine the region.
The writer is a researcher and senior lecturer at Ariel University, which is hosting on Tuesday a conference titled "The Regional Upheaval in the Middle East -- Challenges and Opportunities."