The Middle East Channel

Diplomacy, threats, and Bahrain’s cabinet

Relations between Bahrain and the United States reached a new level of volatility this week as the kingdom's cabinet approved a parliamentary proposal to, as Information Minister Samira Rajab said, "put an end to the interference of U.S. Ambassador Thomas Krajeski in Bahrain's internal affairs." The Bahraini cabinet's endorsement of a proposal to stop Krajeski from "interfering in domestic affairs" and meeting government opponents is a significant move that should do more than raise eyebrows in Washington. 

While U.S. diplomats have been repeatedly attacked by the pro-government media and by the country's parliament for being too close to the pro-democracy opposition, attacks which included personal threats, this is different. This wasn't a crackpot newspaper or a loose cannon member of parliament saying this, but rather the cabinet, which includes the prime minister and the crown crince. The crown prince was supposed to be Washington's friend -- the young western-educated heir to the throne, the reformer in the family, the guy of the future -- whom the U.S. government had banked on to champion democratic reform in Bahrain.

Some observers speculated that the United States's relationship with (and confidence in) the crown prince was one reason why the United States conducted an odd and apparently contradictory relationship with the ruling family in Bahrain over the last two years. Despite public criticism from some within the kingdom and the ongoing human rights violations there, the United States continues to arm the dictatorship and publicly describe it as a close ally. Bahrain also continues to host the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.

This most recent action by Bahrain's cabinet could throw that into jeopardy. While attacks against U.S. officials have been ongoing, until now they had been semi-detached from the official government line. For example, in May 2011, in the early months of the Bahrain prodemocracy uprising, the U.S. pulled its human rights officer, Ludovic Hood, from its Bahrain embassy following weeks of ethnic slurs and threats against him by a pro-government website and newspapers. Hood's photo and address were published, and linked to a wedding photo of him with his "Jewish wife."

In the past, other embassy and State Department officials have also been targeted by the Bahrain parliament and some media as being too close to the opposition, but nothing has reached the level of the cabinet's official endorsement until this week. When it approved a motion filed by six lawmakers calling for the government to step in to end the ambassador's "frequent meetings with provocateurs," it crossed a clear and important line. Rajab said Krajeski, who has been the U.S. ambassador to Bahrain since October 2012, would not be expelled from the country. But how much longer can the U.S. government take these attacks without responding?

The political situation in Bahrain remains unstable with constant street protests, some of which have developed a violent edge, resulting in attacks on police using petrol bombs and other missiles. Earlier this month, the Bahrain government refused access to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, just as it did last year. Reports of unfair trials and mistreatment in custody continue to emerge from the country, as do attacks on U.S. diplomats. There has been little meaningful reform since the mass protests for democracy started in February 2011 and no senior government official has yet been held accountable for the subsequent violent crackdown.

In addition to the cabinet's smackdown of Krajeski, last month's U.S. State Department 2012 country report criticizing Bahrain's human rights record further strained the U.S.-Bahrain relationship. It will be further tested by the recent announcement that the U.S. Department of Labor has invoked "formal consultations" with the government of Bahrain under the countries' Free Trade Agreement in connection with the abuse of workers' rights and attacks on civil society in Bahrain. There is now much more public discussion in Washington about moving the Fifth Fleet out of an increasingly volatile environment and the U.S. Navy ordered a new 1 a.m. curfew for all of its personnel, civilians, and dependents in the country. It's clear that the United States's patience is wearing thin as Bahrain continues to demonstrate that it is clearly not on the path to stability or reform.

In the face of all of these growing concerns and criticisms from the United States, Bahrain's cabinet decided to support the attack on Krajeski. It's a mistake that warrants a clear and decisive reaction from the U.S. government. A public response of dignified silence from the State Department risks encouraging Bahraini government loyalists into escalating the attacks. So far the assaults have been verbal but they feed a climate of intimidation, making it harder for U.S. and other diplomats to engage with opposition and civil society figures. 

Secretary Kerry should publicly affirm that Krajeski is doing what all U.S. ambassadors are supposed to do and what Bahrain's diplomats within the United States are perfectly free to do here. The United States must let Bahrain know there will be consequences for attacks on U.S. diplomats and that Bahrain cannot count on open-ended military support from the United States unless the kingdom stabilizes its country with swift and drastic reforms.

Brian Dooley is Director of Human Rights First's Human Rights Defender Program. He is the author of a series of reports on Bahrain and has been denied access to the kingdom since March 2012.

AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Philippines considers pulling peacekeepers from the Golan Heights

Filipino Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said he recommended to President Benigno Aquino that he withdraw its peacekeeping forces from the Golan Heights after four soldiers were abducted Tuesday. The Syrian rebel Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade said it is holding the soldiers "for their own safety" and has posted two videos of the men to show that they have not been harmed. Two months ago, 20 Filipino peacekeepers were seized from the same area by Syrian rebels and were held for a few days before being released. The peacekeepers were used to demand the pullback of Syrian regime forces. A total 342 Filipino soldiers are posted in the Golan Heights. The group comprises about one third of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) which has been monitoring the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria since 1974. Del Rosario said the soldiers were being held as human shields against attack by Syrian government forces and their exposure was "beyond tolerable limits."

Syria

British Prime Minister David Cameron is planning to use meetings in the coming days with Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama to discuss the crisis in Syria and suggest that an international conference be held in Britain. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Russian president and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week and announced a joint plan for a conference. However, while meeting with Jordanian officials in Rome on Thursday, Kerry said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could not be part of a "transitional government" in post-war Syria, which could pose a challenge to the agreement made with the Russians. Earlier, Kerry had said the situation was a matter for the Syrian people to decide. Meanwhile, in a televised speech, Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah, increased tensions with Israel saying the Syrian government would respond to recent Israeli airstrikes near Damascus by supplying Hezbollah fighters with weapons. Nasrallah was not clear about the type of arms, but said they were "unique weapons that it had never had before" and that it would "change the balance" of power with Israel. On Thursday, Syrian officials said they would retaliate for the Israeli strikes last weekend. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told Agence France-Presse they would "not allow this to be repeated" and "would respond immediately to any Israeli attack."

Headlines  

  • New York prosecutors have accused eight men of leading one of the largest cyber bank thefts ever spanning 27 countries and stealing $45 million from two Middle East banks.
  • Radical Islamist cleric Abu Qatada said he would voluntarily return to Jordan if the parliament ratifies a treaty with Britain, which has been "determined" to deport the international terror suspect.
  • A Finnish couple and an Australian student abducted in December 2012 in Yemen, reportedly by al Qaeda militants, were released near the Omani border overnight Wednesday.
  • Iran has announced a new attack drone, the Epic, capable of surveillance and offensive missions according to Iranian media.
  • Three men were arrested at a demonstration of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews at Jerusalem's Western Wall protesting a group of women praying in garments traditionally worn by men. 

Arguments and Analysis

Syria: Intervention Will Only Make it Worse (Zbigniew Brzezinski, Time)

"Broader regional fighting could bring the U.S. and Iran into direct conflict, a potentially major military undertaking for the U.S. A U.S.-Iran confrontation linked to the Syrian crisis could spread the area of conflict even to Afghanistan. Russia would benefit from America's being bogged down again in the Middle East. China would resent U.S. destabilization of the region because Beijing needs stable access to energy from the Middle East.

To minimize these potential consequences, U.S. military intervention would have to achieve a decisive outcome relatively quickly through the application of overwhelming force. That would require direct Turkish involvement, which seems unlikely given Turkey's internal difficulties, particularly its tenuous relations with its substantial Kurdish minority.

The various schemes that have been proposed for a kind of tiddlywinks intervention from around the edges of the conflict-no-fly zones, bombing Damascus and so forth-would simply make the situation worse. None of the proposals would result in an outcome strategically beneficial for the U.S. On the contrary, they would produce a more complex, undefined slide into the worst-case scenario. The only solution is to seek Russia's and China's support for U.N.-sponsored elections in which, with luck, Assad might be "persuaded" not to participate."

The militias' writ (The Economist)

GIVING way to the country's unruly militias, Libya's General National Congress, its proto-parliament, on May 5th passed a law purging the body politic of officials who held senior posts under Muammar Qaddafi. After months of deadlock in the congress, Libya's disgruntled militiamen forced the issue by blockading the foreign and justice ministries and storming three other ministries. Anyone who held a senior post under Qaddafi in government, the civil service, the army, the police, the judiciary, in banking or in the state-owned national oil company will be disqualified from office for ten years. This is likely to exclude two of the country's most prominent politicians since Qaddafi's fall in October 2011-and may badly shrink the pool of relatively efficient people who are needed if Libya is to revive.

--By Jennifer T. Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/ KHALIL MAZRAAWI