The Middle East Channel

The hollow shell of security reform in Bahrain

With the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend ten days away, international attention is once again focusing on the critical situation in the troubled island kingdom in the Persian Gulf. Daily clashes continue between protesters and the security services, and the beleaguered Al-Khalifa regime faces a growing international backlash over its treatment of jailed human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who is reportedly nearing death after hunger-striking for more than 60 days in protest at the continuing detention of activists in Bahrain. Al-Khawaja's declining health and the imminent Formula One Grand Prix ensure that the spotlight will once again be trained on Bahrain, if only for a few days this April.

Led by 1996 Formula One world champion Damon Hill, a number of racing teams and commentators have expressed concern about the wisdom of holding a Grand Prix in the current climate (and its cancellation remains a possibility). Referring to the ongoing repression of opposition protests by the Bahraini security services, Hill suggested that "It would be a bad state of affairs, and bad for Formula One, to be seen to be enforcing martial law in order to hold the race." He spoke after the youth-led February 14 movement vowed to disrupt the Grand Prix weekend, which appears to be building into a trial of strength between the regime and a re-energized opposition.

Meanwhile, a bomb explosion in Eker on April 9 that injured seven policemen awoke disturbing memories of the violent tactics of the previous uprising in Bahrain between 1994 and 1999. The attack on the security personnel reflected and reinforced the lack of mutual trust and goodwill in the absence of a political settlement, exacerbated by a splintering of both the government and the opposition, as moderate elements have been undercut by more extreme groups on all sides. Part of al-Khawaja's appeal lies in his emphasis on non-violent resistance, but the bombing indicates that elements of the opposition are taking an extremist turn that does not bode well for Bahrain.

World attention will focus on the policing of protests and the extent (or otherwise) to which the security services have modified their approach to dealing with demonstrators. Yet an intriguing subplot is developing around one of the "supercops" drafted in by the Government of Bahrain to advise it on police reform. This centers around a growing investigation into the role of Britain's Metropolitan Police in the News International "phone-hacking" scandal in the United Kingdom. The unlikely link revolves around the revelations of the shortcomings in the Metropolitan Police's initial response to the claims that journalists from the News of the World intercepted the voice mail of members of the Royal Family. In July 2011, they claimed the resignation of its assistant commissioner, John Yates. Four months later, as the Leveson Inquiry launched a wide-ranging review of the culture and practice of the British press and the allegation of illicit payments from journalists to serving police officers, Yates suddenly turned up in Bahrain to advise and assist the government in police reform.

His appointment occurred days after the hard-hitting report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) into abuses committed during the crushing of the Persian Gulf state's pro-democracy movement last year. Yates was joined by the former head of the Miami police, John Timoney. Their appointment was seen by many to be an exercise in damage-limitation as the Government of Bahrain sought to reassure its nervous allies in Washington and London of its commitment to changing its ways. This was especially relevant to the scrutiny of the work of the security services, after the BICI report detailed a pattern of "systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture."

The arrival of Yates and Timoney was intended to signal a fresh start for an organization that is seen by many Bahraini citizens as exclusionary, unaccountable, and deeply partial in its application of law and order. Yet their arrival in Manama raised eyebrows as both men held controversial records, with Timoney coming in for criticism from legal organizations over the heavy-handed policing of demonstrators at the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Miami. For his part, Yates had been forced to resign in 2011 over his role in the News of the World scandal, having earlier earned himself the nickname "Yates of the Yard" for his high-profile role in investigating the "cash for honors" allegations against the government of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2006.

Indeed, developments both in Manama and in London since then have cast doubt on the credibility of the reform process in Bahrain and the reputation of one of the men leading it. Although the Government of Bahrain insists that most of the BICI recommendations have been met, closer scrutiny reveals compliance to have been superficial at best. Police violence continues seemingly unabated with numerous instances of brutality against protesters and bystanders recorded on video and circulated on the internet. One such video taken in March showed a policeman lobbing Molotov cocktails at demonstrators in full view of several of his colleagues, who did nothing to stop or censure him. Most notoriously, graphic footage emerged in mid-December of up to 13 riot police officers savagely beating a group of 20 protesters on the roof of an apartment complex in Shakhura.

These incidents cannot be ascribed to the actions of individual officers. The active involvement or passive acquiescence of multiple participants at the very least suggests that a culture of permissiveness remains embedded in police tactics in Bahrain. In addition, the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of tear gas appears to have been accelerated, with entire villages being blanketed in its suffocating fumes. More than 20 deaths have been attributed to tear gas and smoke inhalation since the uprising began in February 2011, with the majority occurring after the publication of the BICI report. With each additional death and documented instance of police malpractice, it becomes harder to suggest that they represent a final spasm of violence rather than evidence of a continuing cycle of state repression of its own citizenry.

Perhaps most damagingly, the culture of impunity within the security services identified in the BICI report has yet to result in any meaningful form of accountability. The regime attempted to deflect the blame for abuses onto to 20 (supposedly renegade) low-ranking security personnel, and a trial began for five police officers -- none of them Bahraini -- charged with involvement in the death in custody of a blogger on April 9, 2011, which they attributed at the time to "complications from sickle-cell anemia." In addition, the regime appears to have chosen a highly-selective approach to the application of the rule of law depending on whether the perpetrators of the violence were police or protesters. Thus, the courts recently charged 28 civilians with attempted murder for throwing Molotov cocktails at the police. By contrast, and in spite of the plethora of documented video evidence to support the claims of police brutality, just one officer has been investigated over allegations of mistreatment of protesters.

Significant questions therefore remain unresolved as Bahrain moves uncertainly toward its Grand Prix weekend. How widespread the protests become, and how they are policed, will tell us much about the likely trajectory of the next phase of Bahrain's stunted uprising; so, too, will the political and public response should al-Khawaja succumb to his hunger-strike in the face of worldwide pressure on the Bahraini government  to release him.

In addition, the work of Yates and Timoney will come under international scrutiny as the trenchant criticism of policing tactics in the BICI report mean that they ought to have been among the first issues to be tackled by a regime which claims to have implemented almost all of its recommendations. Yet the problem facing them is that the evidence thus far points to little if any change in the manner of policing, amid a continuing reliance on the disproportionate use of force, both pre-emptively and reactively, to prevent or disperse protests.

On the eve of the first anniversary of the uprising, Yates gave a revealingly frank interview to London's Daily Telegraph on  February 13 of this year. After hinting that the adoption of peaceful tactics to handle protests might include the highly-controversial practice of "kettling" demonstrators, Yates appeared to disregard any notion that the demonstrators might have political grievances, saying that "This isn't organized protests, it's just vandalism, rioting on the streets." This remarkable assertion offers little hope that those in charge of Bahraini political and security-sector reform have absorbed any of the lessons of the past year. Indeed, just weeks later, a similarly dismissive remark by made by the King of Bahrain, that the protesters were just a small minority of the population, brought more than 100,000 people onto the streets in response.

Bahrain's uprising is far from over, however much the government, its foreign advisers, and international partners might wish it were so. Bahraini politics is polarized as never before as the middle ground is being squeezed by extremists from all directions and positions on all sides harden against compromise. With the Al-Khalifa dynasty being supported by Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, it has neither the need nor the inclination to engage in serious dialogue with an energized and enraged opposition. This portends to an exceptionally bleak future for the archipelago, caught between a governing class that will not be allowed to fall and a significant segment of its population that no longer believes they have the legitimacy to rule. 

Yates, meanwhile, faces problems of his own. On March 1, he appeared before the Leveson Inquiry by video link from Bahrain and came in for criticism over his wining and dining of senior journalists from the News of the World and other tabloid newspapers. Six days later, Robert Quick, formerly the senior counter-terrorism officer at Scotland Yard, claimed during his own testimony to the Inquiry that Yates had resisted attempts to hand over his cell phone records over suspicions that he might be leaking information to the media relating to the "cash-for-honors" investigation he was then leading. As the allegations mount in London, the Government of Bahrain may feel that their appointment of Yates has saddled them with an increasingly toxic asset. Regardless of how the rapidly-unfolding inquiry develops, Yates's troubled role in Bahrain will keep him in the headlines, and, for Bahrainis (and Britons) with longer memories, generate awkward comparisons with his British predecessors that formed the backbone of Bahrain's security apparatus for much of the twentieth century.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Annan's Syria plan the only game in town

Despite the tentative and fragile ceasefire that appears to have now taken hold in Syria, skepticism and outright vitriol regarding the mission of United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan remains. This frustration is understandable as the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has until now shown no signs of credible compromise and the human costs of conflict have continued to escalate. The odds against success remain high. Even as the Syrian regime has observed a cessation in hostilities, it has ignored agreements to redeploy troops and heavy weapons from population centers. However, even if the current iteration of the Annan mission fails, a sequential diplomatic approach remains the only avenue by which an international consensus might be reached; without such consensus there is simply no hope for a near-term resolution of the conflict through managed transition.

The ceasefire that is at the crux of current attention is not an end in and of itself. The six-point plan endorsed by the Arab League and the United Nations also seeks to establish a Syrian-led political process that addresses the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. While the terms of a transition are left unspecified, it should be clear to Russia and others that any credible managed transition will require the removal of Assad from power. There can be no stability in Syria if the regime remains fully intact. In light of the indispensability of Russia and China and their reservations about the consequences of a political transition, focus should now shift to fashioning a serious transition process that retains specific figures and institutions from the Assad regime while allowing for genuine political change to take root. If international consensus cannot be marshaled around such basic realities then Syria is destined to suffer from escalating and protracted conflict that is the sole alternative to a diplomatic resolution.

The limitations of the Annan mission and its mandate are a reflection of the polarized international debate on Syria and the decidedly poor options available for ending the bloodshed. Chief among the complaints against the Annan initiative has been the argument that it is buying time for the Syrian regime's brutal crackdown on peaceful and armed opposition. However, the Assad regime has made abundantly clear that its only means for dealing with the opposition is by force. As such, it is in no need of cover.

It is also not the case that the Annan initiative is blocking more consequential action. There is currently no appetite for direct foreign military intervention in Syria, despite continued hopes by some that Turkey would lead such an effort. Sharpened Turkish rhetoric, particularly that of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has fueled these hopes among the Syrian opposition and its supporters. While Turkish officials have privately confirmed the existence of contingency planning regarding various types of intervention, there is no real sense of imminent Turkish action, especially without regional and international backing. Short of massive refugee flows, clear evidence of outright Syrian support for Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) guerillas, or escalating cross-border spillover violence, Turkey will not opt for unilateral military options.

Furthermore, the logistical and operational difficulties of arming the Free Syrian Army, coupled with the manifest dangers of this approach, have hindered any serious efforts to do so. While the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, offered resolute words regarding the arming of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) during the inaugural meeting of the Friends of Syria group in February, actual support has not materialized. This gap between rhetoric and actions on the part of Saudi Arabia, as well as Qatar, is partly a reflection of the lack of consensus within the anti-Assad camp regarding the wisdom of arming the Syrian opposition. But as importantly, it is also a reflection of the lack of depth of Saudi and Qatari diplomacy and their inability to effectively carry out such policies. While the Gulf is in a dominant position in terms of its ability to set the diplomatic agenda of the Arab League, without direct assistance from Turkish or Jordanian intelligence, it is unclear whether the policy apparatus of either country could manage such a complex process beyond simply funding various favored Syrian groups. The lack of serious policy coordination between the Gulf and Turkey should also be a warning as to the seriousness of their intent.

Against this backdrop, the Annan mission will serve to clarify the intentions of the interested international parties, including Russia, which has positioned itself, buttressed by China, as the chief obstacle to international efforts to initiate a managed transition. For Russia, the question presented by current diplomatic efforts is whether their interests can be satisfied through a managed transition process despite their longstanding objections to policies that Russia deems to compromise state sovereignty. It will also clarify the sincerity, or lack thereof, of Russia's current stance and whether it is only driven by its desire to be treated as a great power and to be consulted on critical issues of international security. This is particularly the case since Russia demonstrably supported the Annan plan. Its own credibility as an international player is put into doubt by its inability to persuade the Assad regime to fulfill its own obligations.

Any assumption that the Assad regime could crush the armed opposition and reestablish order on its terms should now be moot. While Assad has proven willing to slaughter his own people, his regime has proven unable to decisively crush the opposition to his continued rule. Despite recent tactical successes for the Assad regime, the armed opposition cannot simply be wiped out by military means. Following the massive destruction of the Baba Amr district of Homs and the high toll on civilians, it is likely that the FSA will shift from seeking to openly hold territory to more traditional insurgent tactics. While this will lead to greater resilience, it will also likely result in increased civilian casualties and human suffering.

If all avenues for diplomacy are shut down, the conflict in Syria will escalate and the end goal will be a toppling of the regime. Particularly for Russia, such an outcome represents an all or nothing scenario that would risk Russian strategic interests and further poison Russia's relations with much of the Arab world. It should be clear that there can be no return to the status quo ante. The sequential progression of diplomacy now offers both Russia and China an opportunity to engage in a process that does not create a threatening new precedent while also limiting the destabilizing spillover effects that would accompany heightened sectarian conflict and the likely increase in transnational jihadi involvement.

Syrian opposition figures who have met with Chinese officials have also noted emerging but tentative signs of a potential shift by China, which would leave Russia much more exposed if it casts a lone veto against any further U.N. Security Council action.

In recent conversations with several senior members of the Syrian opposition, it is clear that there remains space for non-military options and diplomatic solutions in the minds of certain sectors of the opposition. This attachment to diplomacy on the part of some political leaders comes despite facing severe bottom-up pressure insisting upon outright regime change through military options. These individuals described the parameters of a managed transition that should satisfy Russian and Chinese concerns while preserving space for a democratic transition. The broad outlines of such a process would include a dignified exit for the president and his most trusted aides while limiting the vetting of the security services to the core leaders of the crackdown. These limited steps would focus attention in immediate terms solely on the 50 or so individuals most culpable for the regime's brutal crackdown. While such steps would undoubtedly be controversial and entail wrenching compromises, in limiting the focus in this fashion, a managed transition would preserve Alawite control of the security sector and would serve as a curb against reprisals and escalated sectarian conflict. In exchange, the transition process would mandate an expedited multi-party electoral process, guarantees of a free and fair process, and an opportunity to craft a new constitution, in addition to fulfilling the existing obligations of the regime as laid out in the Arab League's six-point plan.

Clear signals of the inevitability of a managed transition will also send positive signals to fence-sitters, as such regime figures and potential defectors are calculating their personal interests based on an assessment of the internal balance of power. Shifting their assumptions about the intent of diplomatic efforts could encourage defections and regime fragmentation.

The practicability of this type of managed transition is dependent on the ability of the Syrian National Council (SNC) to unify its ranks inside and outside Syria in support of diplomacy and compromise solutions. It will also require much greater internal consensus than the fragmented Syrian opposition has displayed to date. While rejection of political solutions has increased as regime brutality has escalated, creating de-escalatory momentum and establishing new facts on the ground are the best possible route for limiting the appeal of extremists among the ranks of the opposition.

Such proposals might also be the only path to international consensus regarding Syria's political transition and the only hope for steering the country away from the possibility of increased and protracted violence. If even such far-reaching proposals for compromise are shunned by the supporters of the Assad regime then Syria, its people, and the region will undoubtedly suffer the consequences of proxy conflict and growing sectarian animus.

The current diplomatic process has appeared impotent in the face of the Syrian regime's brutality but with such grim alternatives, the Annan plan and a process of sequential diplomacy remain the last and only hope available for avoiding the worst-case scenarios that might await Syria.

Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow and program officer at the Century Foundation.