TSG IntelBrief: Bahrain Restive Again
July 8, 2016
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Bahrain’s unresolved uprising is flaring anew in response to government efforts to crush the leadership of the organized Shi’a opposition
• The government crackdown and renewed unrest in Bahrain is providing an opportunity for Iran to expand its challenge to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries
• Because Bahrain relies heavily on support from other Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, its regional policies are geared toward maintaining solidarity with Saudi Arabia and its other GCC allies
• The government crackdown on Shi’a opposition leaders creates difficulties for the existing U.S. alliance structure and U.S. military operations in the region.
The Shi’a-led uprising against the ruling Al Khalifa family that began in February 2011 is flaring again after three years of relative quiescence. Demonstrations had quieted substantially since 2013 even though government-instituted reforms had been modest and there have been few signs that a failed national dialogue between the government and Shi’a opposition leaders would resume. Apparently perceiving that the opposition had been virtually defeated, the government sought to crush dissent entirely. In May, the government increased the prison sentence of Sheikh Ali al-Salman, the leader of the main Shi’a opposition political society, Wefaq, from four to nine years. On June 14, the government suspended Wefaq and pursued in Bahraini courts a legal effort to disband the faction entirely. A few days later, it revoked the citizenship of the 75 year-old spiritual leader of Wefaq, the outspoken Shi’a cleric Isa Qasim, sparking significant protests in several Shi’a neighborhoods that were contained by security forces. Although the protests are not nearly as widespread or large as in 2011, the new unrest contradicts the government assertion that Bahrain has returned to ‘normal’ and that there is no need for more concessions to the opposition.
Bahrain’s descent back into turmoil has given Iran an opportunity to expand its challenge not only to the Al Khalifa regime, which it views as an oppressor of the Shi’a majority (over 60% of the population), but to Iran’s main regional antagonists: Saudi Arabia and the GCC (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman). Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that the move against Isa Qasim would ‘remove a barrier between fiery Bahraini youths and the state.’ Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, head of the Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC-QF), the instrument by which Iran expands its regional influence, said that ‘the toppling of the regime will only be a small part of the repercussions [of revoking Qasim’s citizenship] that will also include armed resistance.’ Soleimani has the ability to back up any Iranian threats: according to the latest State Department report on terrorism, the IRGC-QF has been providing ‘weapons, funding, and training to Shi’a militants in Bahrain.’ The report adds that the government of Bahrain has ‘raided, interdicted, and rounded up numerous Iran-sponsored weapons caches, arms transfers, and militants.’
Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states have been strong supporters of the Sunni Muslim minority Al Khalifa regime, even going so far as to intervene militarily in 2011 to help the beleaguered Bahraini security forces suppress mass protests. In justifying the intervention, Saudi Arabia all but declared that it would not permit the uprising in Bahrain to bring to power a Shi’a-led regime that is allied with Iran. In recognition of its reliance on GCC—and particularly Saudi—support, Bahrain’s regional policies are strongly supportive of Saudi preferences. Bahrain’s oil reserves are nearly exhausted, and exports from a Saudi oil field, Abu Safa, fund a substantial portion of Bahrain’s annual budget. In solidarity with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain broke relations with Iran in January over the dispute emanating from the Saudi execution of dissident Shi’a cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Despite its internal security challenges, Bahrain has sent forces to Yemen to help the Saudi-led effort against the Iran-backed Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebels. Bahrain has neither the financial nor military resources to materially support anti-Assad rebel factions in Syria, but it is part of the U.S.-led coalition that is fighting the so-called Islamic State. Bahraini pilots are flying strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria. None of the GCC states is fighting the Islamic State forces in Iraq, implementing a GCC consensus that doing so would represent support for Iran-backed Shi’a militias that are combating the Islamic State alongside the Iraq Security Forces (ISF).
A renewal of sustained, significant unrest in Bahrain could pose security challenges for the broader region. At Bahrain’s main naval facility (Naval Support Activity – Bahrain), nearly 8,000 U.S. naval personnel run all U.S. naval operations in the Persian Gulf. These operations include: countering Iran’s periodic challenges to international shipping; organizing multi-lateral anti-mining and other drills; contributing to sea-based operations against Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq; and conducting anti-smuggling, anti-proliferation, and anti-piracy activities in regional waters. However, international human rights groups have accused the United States of tacitly supporting the Al Khalifa regime’s crackdown on the opposition in the interests of preserving the naval presence in the country. Such criticism contributed to a 2011-2015 U.S. holdup of Humvees and ‘TOW’ anti-tank weapons deliveries for Bahrain, setting back ongoing efforts to build Bahrain’s military capacity. Furthermore, bombings by Iran-supported armed factions in the country pose a potential threat to U.S. military personnel in Bahrain. These factors could pressure the United States into considering relocating its Gulf naval headquarters, for example, to the commercial port at Jebel Ali in the UAE. Relocation would cause a significant, although perhaps not permanent, disruption in U.S. and partner regional military operations, including those against the Islamic State.
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