Why Bahrain is not Syria

How poignant that the first anniversary of a true Arab pro-democracy movement in the Persian Gulf – then ruthlessly crushed – falls on February 14, when Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the West. Talk about a doomed love affair.

And how does Washington honor this tragic love story? By resuming arms sales to the repressive Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty in power in Bahrain.

So just to recap; United States President Barack Obama told Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to “step aside and allow a democratic transition to proceed immediately” while King Hamad al-Khalifa gets new toys to crack down on his subversively pro-democratic subjects.

Is this a case of cognitive dissonance? Of course not; after all Syria is supported by Russia and China at the United Nations Security Council while Bahrain hosts the US’s Fifth Fleet – the defender of the “free world” against those evil Iranians who want to shut down the Strait of Hormuz.

A year ago, the overwhelming population of Bahrain – most of them poor, neglected Shi’ites treated as third-class citizens, but also educated Sunnis – hit the streets to demand the ruling al-Khalifas allow a minimum of democracy.

Just like Tunisia and Egypt – and unlike Libya and Syria – the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain was indigenous, legitimate, non-violent and uncontaminated by Western or Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) infiltration.

The response was a major crackdown plus a Saudi Arabian invasion over the causeway to Manama. That was the tacit result of a deal struck between the House of Saud and Washington; we give you an Arab resolution allowing you to go to the UN and then launch the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s humanitarian bombing on Libya, you leave us alone to smash this Arab Spring nonsense (see Exposed: the US-Saudi Libya deal Asia Times Online, April 2, 2011.)

The Obama administration took no time to preempt the “celebration” of Bahrain’s crushed democracy push by dispatching a State Department honcho to Bahrain.

As reported by the Gulf Daily News, the so-called “Voice of Bahrain” (more like the voice of the al-Khalifas), US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman widely praised King Hamad’s steps to “diffuse tensions” – such as “the release of political prisoners, a partial cabinet reshuffle and the withdrawal of security forces”.

Feltman’s briefers must have been catatonic, because political prisoners remain in jail, the cabinet reshuffle is cosmetic and security forces are in overdrive repression mode.

Feltman said Washington stressed “national dialogue”, “made-in-Bahrain” solutions, and no foreign states “interfering in the process”. Should Bahrainis follow the NATOGCC model as applied to Syria?

He also said, “Bahrainis can count on US support to back a Bahraini consensus on the way forward” and praised the “sincerity” of Crown Prince Salman, also a deputy supreme commander and conductor of the national dialogue. With friends like these, the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain hardly needs enemies.

So that’s Washington’s message in a nutshell; make these people stop that noise and we keep our base here to defend you and your cousins from the unwashed masses.

If women are scared, call an invasion

Real life in Bahrain is something completely different. What US corporate media calls a “tense emirate” is still under a de facto martial law. Those “released” pro-democracy protesters – hundreds of them – remain in jail. Human Rights Watch, to its credit, but still relying on understatement, says, “There has been little accountability for torture and killings – crimes in which the Bahrain Defense Force is implicated.”

No accountability,  in fact.

Anticipating further crackdowns related to the first anniversary of the uprising, the Health Ministry has ordered private hospitals to list to the security apparatus every single injured and wounded person; hundreds of doctors and nurses accused of treating injured protesters have been arrested over the past few months.

The army barbed wired all areas near the Pearl roundabout – where the Pearl monument was razed, the ultimate graphic metaphor of democracy smashed. Two US citizens, Huwaida Arraf and Radhika Sainath, were recently arrested in Manama during a non-violent, peaceful protest. Ayat al-Qormozi was jailed because she read out a poem criticizing King Hamad at the Pearl roundabout.

Last November, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry accused the al-Khalifas of using “excessive force, including the extraction of forced confessions against detainees”. Late January, Amnesty International called them to “investigate and account for the reports of more than a dozen deaths following tear gas use” and called Washington to “suspend transfers of tear gas and other riot control equipment to the Bahraini authorities”.

Saudi-backed local security relies heavily on Pakistani riot policemen – not to mention made in USA tear gas and stun grenades to disperse every single peaceful anti-government protest. Scores of senior citizens and kids have died from asphyxia after regime troops fired tear gas in residential areas and even into homes. The Saudi-backed repression even hit peaceful mourners who were attending funeral processions of protesters killed by the al-Khalifa security apparatus.

What’s the fuss? This is all part of the crown prince’s “national dialogue”.

Yet even with the non-stop crackdown, demonstrations demanding the al-Khalifas to go happen almost daily. This was never an initial demand of the pro-democracy movement; it became one after the Saudi invasion.

And to prove for good that we’re living in a Monty Python’s Meaning of Life world, check this interview of King Hamad published by German weekly Der Spiegel.  (( See Bahrain’s King Says Assad Should Listen to His People Der Spiegel, February 12.))

The king says he asked the GCC to invade his country in March 2011 to protect Bahrain’s “strategic installations” – “in case Iran would be more aggressive”. Tehran had absolutely nothing to do with the protests – caused by a Sunni monarchy that treats the absolute majority of its indigenous subjects like the United Arab Emirates treats its South Asian guest workers.

The king also said that “our women were very scared and it is the duty of a gentleman to protect women”. Perhaps instead of an invasion, torture, killings and non-stop repression, the king might have appeased his “scared women” with a state-sponsored handout of Louis Vuitton handbags.

• First published at Asia Times.

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009). He may be reached at pepeasia@yahoo.com. Read other articles by Pepe.