x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Crackdown in Bahrain risks widening sectarian rift across region, experts warn

It is a measure of the seriousness with which GCC countries viewed the situation in Bahrain that they would risk a diplomatic fall-out with the US by sending in troops.

WASHINGTON // The crackdown on mostly peaceful protesters in Bahrain risks deepening divisions in the country and widening a Sunni-Shiite sectarian rift across the region. The deployment of Gulf Cooperation Council security forces, moreover, could serve to bolster Iran and has already caused a diplomatic fall-out with the US.

The Bahraini government yesterday announced it had restored order in the country after Bahraini forces, backed by tanks and helicopters, cleared protestors from the Pearl Roundabout in Manama and elsewhere and imposed a 12-hour, nationwide curfew.

The country had almost ground to a halt after a month of protests, and reports in recent days suggested demonstrators had begun putting up ad hoc checkpoints as talks between the government and opposition figures failed to get off the ground.

But the violent crackdown - three protesters and three police were killed and hundreds wounded, security forces were reported to have prevented ambulances from reaching hospitals and opposition leaders were rounded up and arrested - is at best likely only to provide temporary calm.

The underlying structural problem that brought people into the streets in the first place, the systemic disenfranchisement of Bahrain's Shiite majority, which has been exacerbated by an economic downturn that hit Bahrain harder than other countries in the region, remains unaddressed.

Any negotiations between the government and opposition figures will only prove harder in the wake of the crackdown, which is likely to polarise opinions and marginalise those in Bahrain who transcend the sectarian divide.

Jean-Francois Seznec, visiting associate professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, aaid: "The centre, which was really occupied by liberal Sunnis and liberal Shiites, has exploded. Now the communities are at each other's throat."

Much will depend now on whether the government will move forward on reforms and if the opposition can cobble together a joint platform.

Some suggest that re-asserting government control was a necessary step for any movement and that the opposition had pushed too hard, too long.

Roby Barrett, a Gulf security expert and a scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington, said: "I think there was a misreading by protestors of the strength of their position." Dr Barrett said the lack of traction in negotiations had been largely due to protesters refusing to temper their demands - "the government is not going to commit political suicide" - and left the regime with a choice of either allowing a "continued slide into chaos" or clearing the streets.

Having made the decision to clamp down, the smartest approach, Dr Barrett suggested, was to ask for GCC involvement, in part to defuse any international criticism a security operation would invite.

If that was the intention, it seems to have partially worked.

Before the GCC force moved in, Bahrain had been under pressure from the US administration to enact serious reforms and enter into a dialogue with the opposition.

"Baby steps" were not enough and there could be no return to the status quo, Robert Gates, the US secretary of defence, had said on a visit to Manama on Saturday, just two days before Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent in forces in response to a request from King Hamad bin Issa al Khalifa

That deployment seemed to take Washington by surprise. The involvement of Saudi Arabia in particular, the US's most important ally in the region, has complicated the picture for the US administration. There has so far been no call for the GCC to remove its troops.

"I think it's a message to the US," Mr Seznec said. "The GCC was basically saying that 'you're not going to dictate how the political system of the region is managed'."

But the administration has been critical. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, told CBS news yesterday that Bahrain and the GCC are "on the wrong track. There is no security answer to this." Barack Obama, the US president, in calls on Wednesday to both King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and King Hamad of Bahrain, has urged both countries to exercise "maximum restraint".

It is a measure of the seriousness with which GCC countries viewed the situation in Bahrain that they would risk a diplomatic fall-out with the US by sending in troops, a questionable move even under the GCC charter, which forbids interference in the internal affairs of a member country.

On the other hand, the GCC has signalled that it will play an active, if not leading, role in any international intervention in Libya, for which the US has keenly sought Arab participation. The Council was also out ahead of the Arab League in calling for a no-fly zone to be imposed.

Moreover, with the GCC set to collectively spend some US$80 billion on American arms in 2011, member countries may reasonably have calculated that the US response would be restrained. The US navy base in Bahrain is also of key strategic importance.

Thomas Lippman of the Council on Foreign Relations said: "It's not as if the Americans are going to pack up the 5th Fleet and move it out because we're mad at them."

Nevertheless, Mr Lippman argued that the deployment of GCC troops to Bahrain was "potentially very counterproductive" because it would serve to exacerbate regional sectarian tensions.

Indeed, on Wednesday, Moqtada al Sadr, a senior Iraqi Shiite cleric, called for mass demonstrations in Baghdad and Basra in support of Shiite demonstrators in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia has a sizeable Shiite minority with grievances of its own, and the involvement of GCC troops in Bahrain could create a situation where collectively, Shiites feel "rejected, put down and more oppressed," Mr Lippman said.

That in turn, he said, will cause Arab Shiites with no real attachment to Iran - which has described the deployment of GCC troops in Bahrain as an "invasion" - to ask where their interests are best protected.

"The Iranians don't have to do anything but sit and watch," Mr Lippman said. "Things are breaking their way."