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Opinion

Opinion: Ramadi and the fall of the Arab world

The Sunni-Shiite conflict is making the job of ridding the Iraqi city of Ramadi of "Islamic State" fighters complicated. But DW's Rainer Sollich says that it's also driving the collapse of the entire region.

Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren meekly explained that the fall of Ramadi was indeed a setback in the fight against "Islamic State," but said that one shouldn't overrate that fact. He said that the city will be retaken. US Secretary of State John Kerry used that same calculated optimism when he announced his confidence that Ramadi would be retaken within the next few days.

In strictly military terms these two men may be right: eight months of airstrikes have no doubt weakened the "Islamic State" (IS). The terrorists' illicit income is waning, they have already lost Kobani and Tikrit, and probably won't be able to hold onto Ramadi much longer. But at what price will victory come?

Paid with human lives

As always, the currency with which such conflicts are paid is human life. So far in Ramadi, at least 500 men and women are reported to have been killed and another 25,000 have fled. Those numbers could rise when IS begins butchering supposed "traitors." Or, when in a strange twist of fate, Shiite militias take up arms to free the Sunni majority in Ramadi from the yoke of IS authority under the cover of US airstrikes.

In a region where the differences between Sunni and Shiite have been used to stoke blatant power struggles, and instrumentalized as an excuse for terror, bloody violence and revenge, the whole scenario is like playing with fire - an explosive adventure with an uncertain outcome.

Sollich Rainer Kommentarbild App

Rainer Sollich, DW Arabic department

Nonetheless, it is conceivable that "Islamic State" as a territorial entity could well be defeated in the not too distant future, in Iraq as well as Syria. Yet, what will remain of those countries? That is an open question.

IS will remain a potent militant terror organization in any case, because it knows how to pluck the strings of interconfessional discord that set the tone for much of the region today and unfortunately will continue to do so into the future - not only among the elites, but also among an unsettlingly large portion of the Syrian, Iraqi, Libyan and Yemeni populations. To date, one Arab state after the other has fallen due to interconfessional, ethnic or tribal power struggles - and there seems to be no end in sight. In such imploding states, IS, al-Qaeda and other groups will be able to spread fear and terror without needing their own territories.

Interconfessional and similar animosities aren't created in a vacuum. Despite decades of peaceful coexistence between various groups, they have latently existed and been either suppressed or exploited by dictators all along. In the wake of the failed Arab Spring, exploitation has become the preferred mechanism and effectively driven politics in many areas. In conjunction with enormous economic problems and extremely high youth unemployment in many affected countries, a dangerous cocktail has been mixed that threatens to drag the entire region even deeper into chaos.

Alarm signals muted

Even Arab politicians like to say, "Young people are our future." But alarm bells should be going off when frustrated young people hang out on the streets with no prospects for the future, waiting for the next barge to Europe, or worse, waiting to become cannon fodder in armed conflicts.

Yet, in the Arab world those alarm bells are eerily silent among the rulers of poorer countries that attempt to quash any opposition to their rule with an iron fist, like Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, and the potentates of the rich, yet no less repressive, Gulf emirates. The Gulf states would seem to at least possess the economic and social requirements to send a strong political signal against the decline and fall of the Arab world. A totally new form of regional cooperation must be strived for, one that also includes non-Arab states, like Iran and Turkey. Its goal must be to break the cycle of mutual rivalry, hate and violence for the benefit of a collective initiative for more education, freedom and prosperity.

The entire region suffers under similar problems, and the entire region desperately needs a new vision. Yet, of all the actors, the Sunni rulers in the Gulf have failed most dismally on this front. Day by day, they seem to gaze more fearfully at their Shiite rival Iran, which itself enjoys the perspective of doing business with the Gulf's traditional partner, the US.

At the same time they look with trepidation upon the potential for unrest among their own populations. In the interest of cementing their own grip on power they even robustly tug at the ties of interconfessional tensions in the region, and on top of that they are currently bombing the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula. And no one has a vision of what is to follow, neither in the Gulf, nor in Ramadi.

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