Why US silence on Bahrain's crackdown could backfire
For the fourth time in two weeks, a detainee died in police custody. Witnesses say his body, like the others, bore signs of abuse.
As Bahrain's government intensifies its campaign to crush dissent, the world has been largely silent – embittering protesters and potentially creating an opening for Iran to expand its influence and undermine US-Saudi interests in the region.Skip to next paragraph
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In the past week, activists and others who speak out against the Bahraini government’s campaign are increasingly being arrested and others have reported threats to themselves or their families. Security forces have targeted the nation’s majority Shiites for beatings and arrest at checkpoints, and conducted near nightly raids on homes of activists and ordinary citizens. This week a fourth detainee died in police custody in less than two weeks, and witnesses said that his body, like the others, bore signs of abuse.
Bahrain's government has also sought to wipe out the political opposition, arresting politicians and briefly shutting down the nation's only independent newspaper. Today the Ministry of Justice announced it has begun proceedings to shut down Bahrain’s largest opposition group, the Shiite bloc al-Wafaq, in a move that further confirms that Bahrain’s Sunni rulers are not interested in a political solution to the crisis.
The silence of the world, and particularly the US, in the face of this campaign is galling to ordinary Bahrainis who oppose the crackdown, who watch the world condemn rulers in Libya, Syria, and Yemen without a mention of Bahrain.
“We are calling to the US, the United Nations, the EU,” said a man at the funeral of 15-year-old Sayed Ahmed Said Shems in the Shiite village of Saar late last month. Eyewitnesses said police killed the teenager as he played in an alley with his friends. “Where are they?” he wondered as men shoveled sandy soil into the youth's grave. “Where is the world? Why are they silent?” Like many Bahrainis at this tumultuous time, he asked to remain anonymous for his own safety.
America's silence in particular is angering Bahrain's largely Shiite population. While the US initially urged Bahrain's government to negotiate with the opposition, it has issued no strong condemnation of Bahrain's use of violence and intimidation since the middle of March, when Saudi Arabia sent more than 1,000 troops into Bahrain to help the government crush the protest movement that started in February asking for democratic reforms.
While the US stance is generally attributed to an attempt to protect regional interests, the festering situation in Bahrain is actually increasing Iran’s opportunity for influence in the region and widening rifts between Arab nations – neither of which are in the interest of the US.
Why the US went silent
Bahrain, an archipelago slightly smaller than New York City, is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf and serves as a counterweight to an Iranian threat. The US and Saudi Arabia fear a Shiite government in Bahrain would be receptive to Iranian influence, possibly jeopardizing the US base there. And Saudi rulers fear that if Bahrain’s Sunni rulers capitulated to protesters demands for reform, it could energize the Islamic kingdom’s own restive Shiite minority to move.
Yet the regional rivalry alone does not explain US silence. Before Saudi troops rolled across the causeway that links Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, the US had pushed Bahrain’s government to reach a political solution, sending Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of State for near eastern affairs, to Bahrain multiple times. In a visit to Bahrain that ended just two days before Saudi troops arrived, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that “baby steps” toward reform were not enough.