The Middle East Channel

The other side of radicalization in Bahrain

In a July 6 interview with Egyptian journalists carried in the Al-Ahram daily, a leading Bahraini revealed that his country's February uprising was "by all measures a conspiracy involving Iran with the support of the United States," the latter aiming "to draw a new map" of the region. "More important than talking about the differences between the U.S. and Iran," he insisted, are "their shared interests in various matters that take aim at the Arab welfare."

Who is this Bahraini conspiracy theorist? A radical Arab nationalist, perhaps? Or a leader of the popular Sunni counter-revolution that mobilized successfully against the Shia-led revolt? Not exactly. In fact, he is none other than Marshall Khalifa bin Ahmad Al Khalifa: Minister of Defense, Commander-in-Chief of the Bahrain Defense Force, and, as his name indicates, a prominent member of Bahrain's royal family. His outburst decrying American duplicity in Bahrain is but the latest in a string of similar incidents and public accusations that once more raise the question of political radicalization in Bahrain. But this time, in contrast to the usual narrative, the radicalization is not emanating from the country's Shia majority.

The rise of this anti-American narrative among Bahrain's pro-government Sunnis can be traced back, ironically, to a March 7 protest in front of the U.S. embassy in Manama organized by Shia political activists. Those present condemned the muted if not outright hostile American response to their then still-hopeful popular revolution. A seemingly trivial detail of that demonstration -- a box of doughnuts reportedly brought to the protesters by the embassy's then-Political Affairs Officer, who had ventured outside to hear their complaints -- provided fodder some weeks later for a widely-circulated online article portraying the official as a veritable enemy combatant. Photographs of him and his family, along with his local address and phone number, would soon appear on militant Salafi forums, where readers were urged to take action against this Hezbollah operative. Within a few weeks, the U.S. embassy had a new Political Affairs Officer; the old one had been very quietly sent home. 

Around the same time, Bahrain's most hawkish government newspaper, Al-Watan, ran a series of editorials detailing the U.S.'s alleged duplicitous dealings in Bahrain. Titled "Washington and the Sunnis of Bahrain," the articles chronicled a wide range of U.S. policies and institutions meant to undermine Sunni rule of Bahrain and of the Arab Gulf more generally. These include the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative, the National Democratic Institute, Human Rights Watch, and the (subsequently "reorganized") American Studies Center at the University of Bahrain. 

In late June, this series gave way to a new and even less-subtly titled one: "Ayatollah Obama and Bahrain," which draws on the president's Muslim name to portray not only a country whose strategic interests have led it to abandon the Arab Gulf to Iran, but a U.S. president who harbors personal ideological sympathies for the Shia. Spanning nearly a dozen issues from June 26 to July 6, the articles ended only after an official protest by the U.S. embassy.

This is more than a mere media campaign. Bahrain's largest Shia opposition society, al-Wifaq, held a festival last weekend to reiterate its demand for an elected government to be submitted at this week's sessions of an ongoing National Dialogue conference. Loyalist Sunnis countered with a rally of their own, one aimed not at domestic policy but at ending U.S. "interference" in Bahraini affairs. A 15-foot-wide banner hung directly behind the speakers' podium bore the flags of "The Conspirators Against the Arab Gulf," -- the United States, al-Wifaq, Hezbollah, and Iran. Below it was the message: "Bahrain of the Al Khalifa: God Save Bahrain from the Traitors."

Rising Sunni cleric Sheikh ‘Abd al-Latif Al Mahmud told listeners that, among other things, it is the United States that has divided Bahrain into Sunnis and Shia, just as it had done in Iraq. "If the regime is too weak to stand up to the U.S., they need to declare that so people can have their say," he continued. "And if the regime needs a ... rally ... in front of the U.S. embassy, the people are ready." And then the crescendo: "And if the U.S. is threatening to withdraw its troops and the facilities it gives to Bahrain, then to hell with these troops and facilities. We are ready to live in famine to protect our dignity."  This is from a man who just months ago led pro-government rallies that attracted several hundred thousand Bahraini Sunnis.

This anti-U.S. mobilization by regime supporters in Bahrain is ominous, and of course ironic inasmuch as the Obama administration's lukewarm response to the February protests was premised in large part on the assumption that a Bahrain controlled by the Shia would be a Bahrain without the U.S. Fifth Fleet. But unfortunately the story only gets worse. 

Underlying this popular sentiment is a still more troubling cause: a longstanding political dispute dividing members of Bahrain's royal family that the current crisis has brought to a head. Post-February, Bahrain has seen the empowerment of the less compromising factions of the ruling Khalifa family -- in particular its prime minister of 40 years -- at the expense of the more moderate king and crown prince. The former holds precariously to power; the latter, despite concerted U.S. efforts to revive his political standing highlighted by a June 7 meeting in Washington with President Obama, has been all but banished entirely following his failure to broker a deal to end protests in the early days of the crisis.

What is most remarkable about Mahmud's exhortation of fellow Sunnis is not his threat directed at the United States, but the threat directed at his own government. His suggestion that if "the regime is too weak to stand up to the U.S., they need to declare that so people can have their say" is no less than an explicit challenge to Bahrain's ruling faction: either do what is necessary to guarantee the country's interests, or get out of the way of those who will.

That King Hamad has yet to put a stop to either strand of rhetoric -- the embarrassing months-long harassment of the American embassy and president, or the overt criticism of his own political handling of Bahrain's crisis -- evidences a fear of losing what precious little support he still enjoys from among the country's significant Sunni Islamic constituency. Indeed, rather than move to silence these radical voices, King Hamad has perhaps out of necessity legitimized them. On June 21, he went so far as to pay a personal visit to the home of Mahmud where, according to Bahrain's state news agency, he "lauded [him] for his efforts to serve his nation and religion."

When protests in Bahrain erupted in February, the primary storyline featured a friendly Sunni government under siege by a pro-Iranian Shia majority, an inherently anti-Western faction feared to have been only further radicalized by the sweeping security crackdown necessary to quell the unrest.  For U.S. policymakers, having now endured months of scrutiny for their unwavering support of the Bahraini government while backing pro-democracy uprisings elsewhere, the irony of the recent anti-American turn by Sunni Islamists must appear little humorous, particularly as the movement has been enabled if not cultivated outright by pragmatic members of the very family whose rule the U.S. has worked so steadfastly to preserve.

Justin Gengler is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University in Michigan and former Fulbright Fellow to Bahrain. He blogs at Religion and Politics in Bahrain and is on Twitter at @BHPoliticsBlog.

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Marc Lynch

Our Man in Damascus

"I have seen no evidence yet in terms of hard changes on the ground that the Syrian government is willing to reform at anything like the speed demanded by the street protestors. If it doesn’t start moving with far greater alacrity, the street will wash them away."

That was the blunt verdict offered by U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford in a wide-ranging telephone interview with Foreign Policy today. Ford sharply criticized the Syrian government's continuing repression against peaceful protestors and called on President Bashar al-Assad to "take the hard decisions" to begin meaningful reforms before it is too late. Not, Ford stressed, because of American concerns but because of the impatience of the Syrian opposition itself. "This is not about Americans, it is about the way the Syrian government mistreats its own people," Ford stressed repeatedly. "This is really about Syrians interacting with other Syrians. I’m a marginal thing on the sidelines. I’m not that important."

Some might disagree. Last Thursday and Friday, Ford made a dramatic visit to the embattled city of Hama to demonstrate the United States' support for peaceful protests and its condemnation of the Syrian government's use of violence. His trip to Hama electrified supporters of the Syrian opposition, and marked a sharp escalation in U.S. efforts to deal with the difficult Syrian stalemate. It also sparked a vicious Syrian response, as government-backed mobs attacked the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, inflicting considerable damage. In a caustic note posted to his Facebook page, Ford called on the Syrian government to "stop beating and shooting peaceful demonstrators." Ford's sharp criticism of the Syrian government's violence against peaceful protestors and detailed outline of multilateral and American diplomatic efforts to pressure the Syrian regime suggest that the recent U.S. rhetorical escalation does mark a new stage in the ongoing crisis.

Ford warned that the Syrian government still failed to understand the depth and extent of the changes in their country. "They need to begin a really serious transition and not just talk or make promises," and to grant real political freedoms and to begin taking apart the oppressive and unaccountable security apparatus. While acknowledging that some Syrian gestures towards reform were significant within the local context, he dismissed most of the regime's reform proposals as "irrelevant." The Syrian government could not be credible while it continued to violently repress peaceful marches or to arrest a kid for spraying anti-regime graffiti -- in the eyes of its own people, regardless of what outsiders like the U.S. might think. The Syrian government "is not even close to meeting those demands. That is a genuine problem."

While the situation in Syria today may look like a stalemate, Ford sees it as far more dynamic beneath the surface. Compared to only a few months ago, the opposition has expanded and organized impressively, and has demonstrated phenomenal courage and remained largely non-violent. In part he chose Hama for his dramatic outing because "people in Hama over the last two months have been very conspicuous in avoiding violence." He noted that while touring Hama he saw nearly a dozen government buildings, unguarded, with only two broken windows on one building. Compare that, he wryly noted, to the extensive damage to his Embassy inflicted by the regime's thugs.

The Syrian people have broken the fear barrier, he argued, and now people are speaking more freely. Syria is changing, and the government needs to recognize that and respond appropriately rather than continuing in a futile effort to resist change through force. He marveled at the impact of satellite television and the Internet, which have dramatically shaped the worldviews and expectations of young Syrians. They simply will not accept what earlier generations did, and have already demonstrated powerfully that they will not shut up in the face of threats of violence. That is why Ford repeatedly deferred questions about specific political demands: "It's not an American decision. What we will not do is to claim to speak for them. They are capable of speaking for themselves."

But thus far, the Syrian regime has chosen to violently crack down on peaceful protests across the country, and has not made the kind of reforms which might have at an earlier point saved the regime. I asked Ford when the Syrian regime's violence would cross the line, when the repression and violence might have gone too far for any peaceful transition to be possible. "That's really not a question for Americans," he responded. "It's a question for the Syrian opposition, a lot of whom are quite tough. I've met enough of them, and believe me, they are a lot tougher than anyone in the Washington Post or the U.S. Senate. They know exactly what they are doing. I have talked to people who have lost immediate family, who have been killed or jailed. Nothing focuses the mind like that."

Ford dismissed the idea that prior to Hama he had been a captive in his Embassy, unable to engage with anyone. Quite the contrary. He has had access to both the Syrian government and to key sectors of Syrian society such as the business community. The threat of violent retaliation and intimidation of Syrians who meet with American officials is real, though, and he acknowledged that some had refused invitations out of this fear. Senior administration officials have told me several times in other conversations that Ford's conversations were one of their most important sources of information in assessing the Syrian scene. This is one key reason why they considered his presence essential even before his electrifying visit to Hama persuaded most of their critics of his value.

Ford waved away suggestions that he might rein in his activities in the face of official pressure. "I’m not going to stop the things I do," he said quietly. "I can’t. The president has issued very clear guidance. It’s morally the right thing to do." He plans to take further trips around the country, to continue to meet with as many Syrians as he can, and to push to open political space and to restrain regime violence. He doesn't think that the Obama administration will recall him, and has no indication as yet whether the Syrian government will expel him.

For now, he sees his role as doing what he can to open political space for the Syrian people to push their own demands for political freedoms, restraints on an unaccountable and anachronistic security apparatus, and a meaningful political transition. The United States, he emphasizes, is not supporting any specific Syrian opposition movement or personality. Nor is it endorsing a specific transition plan, a move which he believes would reproduce the mistakes made by the Bush administration in Iraq in 2004. The process "has to move at Syrian speed, not at a speed set in Washington, London or Brussels."

His emphasis on the role of the Syrian people and on multilateral action reflects the general approach of the Obama administration to this year's Arab upheavals. Ford refused to put the United States at the center of what is fundamentally a Syrian uprising for political rights, or to substitute an American transition plan for the ideas developed by the Syrian opposition itself. He refuses, wisely in my view, to make an Arab story about America -- even as he works tirelessly behind the scenes to construct effective action in support of popular demands. "This is a Syrian decision, not an American one. We will certainly encourage the Syrian people to demand their rights." That includes continuing to work multilaterally with Europeans and with Syria's neighbors, to coordinate targeted sanctions on people in the regime responsible for repression, and to push the Security Council to take on the issue.

The goal is to create a "space for genuine politics and free expression without the threat of violence." That remains an ambiguous and even murky endpoint in an increasingly violent and polarized environment. While he declined to answer the question of whether such an outcome was possible with the Asad regime in power, it is difficult at this point to see how it could be. That decision will ultimately be one for the Syrian people, not for the United States, Ford repeatedly stressed. But as the Obama administration's rhetoric sharpens and actions follow suit, it may become more and more difficult to maintain that balance.