January 7, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Turmoil in Bahrain and Regional Impact

• The late December arrest of Shaykh Ali Salman, leader of Bahrain’s largest Shi’a political faction, Wifaq (Accord) National Islamic Society, has reignited significant Shi’a unrest and international criticism of Bahrain’s Sunni-dominated government

• The arrest reflects the political calculation of hardliners in Bahrain’s ruling al-Khalifa family that the decline of Shi’a unrest in 2014 permitted a decisive move against Wifaq

• The criticism of the arrest by both the United States and Iran demonstrates that U.S.-Iran differences have narrowed on several regional issues, not limited to opposition to the so-called Islamic State

• U.S.-Bahrain differences on the Salman arrest do not hinder joint cooperation against the Islamic State organization nor in the defense of the Persian Gulf.

In late December 2014, the Sunni-minority government in Bahrain arrested Shaykh Ali Salman, Secretary-General of the island country’s most prominent Shi’a opposition political faction, Wifaq National Islamic Society. He was charged with inciting the violent overthrow of the Khalifa regime—a charge that was based on his comments to a Wifaq national conference recalling the evolution of Syria’s opposition from peaceful protests to armed rebellion. Even though Shaykh Salman indicated that he had rebuffed any comparisons between the Syria and Bahrain uprisings, the government asserted that his comments represented an implied threat to move Wifaq to violent insurrection.

The arrest immediately reignited public Shi’a unrest, after a year in which protests had appeared to decline in frequency and intensity. Elections for a 40-seat lower house of the national assembly were held peacefully, even though Wifaq boycotted the vote. As unrest appeared to decline in 2014, although far from ending, international criticism of Bahrain also waned. The government felt sufficiently confident to join the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State in September 2014. Bahrain’s U.S.-made F-16s have participated in airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Syria, in part to demonstrate that the government is willing to act against violent Sunni Muslim extremists.

Yet the relative quiet on the domestic front in 2014 might have caused the Khalifa government, or at least hardliners within it, to overreach. The timing of the move against Wifaq was undoubtedly affected by U.S. criticism of Wifaq’s boycott of the national assembly elections as well as perceptions of its declining strength. The U.S. criticism of the Wifaq boycott likely led the anti-opposition hawks to believe that arresting Shaykh Salman would not set back relations with Bahrain’s most powerful benefactor. Domestically, the 14 Shi’a candidates who won election to the lower house were independents not formally affiliated with Wifaq, and al-Khalifa hardliners interpreted their victories as evidence that Wifaq’s political grip on Bahrain’s Shi’a population might be waning.

The regime’s miscalculations became evident almost immediately. Not only did Bahraini Shi’a take to the streets around Manama with relatively large and sustained demonstrations calling for Shaykh Salman’s release, but also long-muted U.S. criticism of Bahrain revived. U.S. officials indicated the arrest was unwarranted because Wifaq is a peaceful opposition group, and expressed concern that the arrest “will only inflame tensions.”  The U.S. recriminations came only weeks after the United States and Bahrain had resolved an earlier dispute over Bahrain’s July expulsion of visiting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski for his private meeting with Wifaq. Malinowski was permitted to make a return visit to Bahrain in mid-December.

Though international reaction has been muted, the repercussions expanded when Iran’s criticism virtually duplicated that of the United States. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated that the arrest “will only complicate the situation [in Bahrain] and raise concerns and threats.” The U.S. and Iranian statements undoubtedly shocked Bahraini and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) officials as the United States remains Bahrain’s (and the GCC’s) most powerful ally, whereas Iran has been the longstanding nemesis. Bahrain has accused Iran of sponsoring Shi’a-based coup attempts in Bahrain in the 1980s and 90s and of arming violent factions of the current Shi’a opposition. U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials have sometimes publicly corroborated these assertions.

Yet, the U.S. and Iranian statements on the Shaykh Salman arrest reinforced the perception that U.S. and Iranian views on some regional issues have narrowed. This trend has been particularly pronounced with regard to the so-called Islamic State, against which the United States and Iran are conducting parallel efforts to assist the Iraqi government and Kurdish peshmerga.

The Shaykh Salman arrest and attendant international criticism is likely to cause problems for Saudi Arabia and for U.S.-Saudi relations. When the 2011 Shi’a uprising in Bahrain began, Saudi Arabia led a joint GCC force to help Bahrain’s security forces cope with massive demonstrations, asserting that no takeover by the Shi’a opposition would be permitted. The Kingdom has supported al-Khalifa hardliners who resist substantial political compromise with the Shi’a opposition. The United States publicly opposed the 2011 GCC military intervention in Bahrain and has sought, unsuccessfully to date, to persuade the Saudi government to accept Bahraini government concessions to the Shi’a opposition.

The Shaykh Salman arrest is not likely to affect U.S.-Bahrain defense cooperation. The two countries have kept defense coordination separate from the issue of Bahrain’s handling of the Shi’a uprising. The arrest has not altered Bahrain’s participation in U.S.-led airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in Syria. Since 2011, the United States has held up some sales of arms to Bahrain that can be used for internal security purposes, but there has been no holdup of U.S. sales of major defense items. Nor has there been any public U.S. consideration of relocating from the large Bahraini naval facility that is the headquarters for U.S. naval operations in the Persian Gulf.


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