Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Tit for Tat in Bahrain

Only two months into the 2011 uprising, Hussein Ibish created something of a stir with an article for Foreign Policy titled, "Is Bahrain Creating a New Terrorist Threat?" Opposition activists in particular were offended by the suggestion that what was then an overwhelmingly peaceful protest movement could devolve into violence or terrorism.  Suffice it to say that Ibish likely avoided Twitter for a few days.

Of course, his question was not aimed at the integrity of demonstrators, but simply the political environment in Bahrain. "By leaving no room for peaceful dissent, " he summarized, "the Bahraini monarchy is creating the conditions for a violent revolt."

Such a thesis, I suspect, is no longer controversial, particularly following yesterday's sophisticated and premeditated attack on police in the village of Daih using a remotely-detonated bomb.  (Ugly opposition forum photos here.) While one can debate whether such an operation is best described as "terrorism" or "insurgency," given that the targets were police rather than civilians, still I think all can agree that Ibish's query is no longer rhetorical. (And we leave aside for the moment the question of Bahraini armed involvement in Syria, especially among Salafis.)

Of obvious concern is the nature of the bombing itself, which as the government has been quick to point out made use of exactly the sort of remote detonator confiscated in January on a boat apparently destined for Bahrain. At the time, the Ministry of Interior claimed that the detonators bore a "Made in Syria" label, though I have not seen this explicit connection made to yesterday's attack.

The following video, though dismissed by some as government fabrication, purports to show supporters of the group apparently responsible, the al-Ashtar Brigades, celebrating in Nuwaidrat the success of the deadly "operation" in Daih. The presence of small children certainly is not comforting.


Another unusual aspect of the case is the involvement of Emirati police personnel -- one of whom was among the dead -- in the anti-riot operation.  According to an Interior Ministry statement, the officer was in Bahrain "as part of the Amwaj Al Khaleej forces of the [GCC] Joint Security Agreement." He was not, then, part of the GCC's Peninsula Shield force, which the government continues to insist has never been involved in anti-demonstration operations (a claim supported by the BICI).

Yet the GCC joint security pact, agreed in 2012, is perhaps no less controversial.  Its terms still have not been released publicly, drawing anger and some protest among parliamentarians in Kuwait in particular.  Certainly, the presence of foreign police in Bahrain will come as an unwelcome surprise to many.

According to several people based in the Emirates with whom I've spoken, the case of the fallen UAE policeman has garnered national attention and given rise no little anti-Iranian sentiment.  Ruler of Dubai Sh. Muhammad bin Rashid has even taken to Twitter to eulogize "Tariq al-Shehi, Emirati father of four, ... martyred in Bahrain."
One wonders how this sentiment will translate into international relations.  On the one hand, one could imagine redoubled regional support for Bahrain so as to appear united in the face of ostensive Iranian-backed terrorism.  On the other hand, one might just as well expect the opposite reaction, on the part of the UAE in particular, which is to say to the Al Khalifa: you really need to get your house in order, as it's increasingly affecting the rest of us.

In this regard, the recent elevation of Muhammad bin Nayf in Saudi Arabia, now in charge of the all-important Syria portfolio, is of potential consequence.  The Interior Minister is said to be more pragmatic than his father with regard to Saudi countenance of potential Bahraini concessions to the opposition, and was even rumored to have been involved in an ultimately-abandoned plan to bring al-Wifaq representatives to discussions in Riyadh.

One really hopes that such potential sources of regional pressure or mediation pan out, because it's difficult to see how Bahrain's political-turned-armed conflict can be resolved internally.  Unless one believes that the state has so far held its punches in its dealing with the violent opposition, and that its heretofore inability to stamp out attacks such as yesterday's stems primarily from moderation in tactics, then it's not clear what else it can do to end the escalating insurgency. Arresting 'Ali Salman or 'Isa Qasim isn't going to change anything (for the better).

At the same time, despite official statements to the contrary, one has to imagine that the government views the violent street movement as almost entirely out of the sphere of al-Wifaq's influence. The state has therefore little incentive to enter into serious negotiations with the group, as it cannot credibly promise to deliver what the state wants, i.e. an end to precisely this sort of bloodshed and bad publicity.

Unfortunately, an escalating tit-for-tat contest between the government and radical opposition appears already well underway.

Update: The blog Jihadology offers a detailed look at Saraya al-Ashtar.

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