Russia Must Be Careful on Bahrain, Syria

As Bahrain marked the second anniversary of its popular uprising on 14 February, the embattled Western-backed monarchy has renewed attempts apparently to seek a negotiated political settlement with various opposition groups to its two-year crisis.

However, many analysts both within and outside the Persian Gulf kingdom see the new push for “national dialogue” as nothing more than a cynical political maneuver by the Sunni regime to buy off a popular, mainly Shia, challenge to its unelected rule. The ulterior agenda of the talks process, which opened on 10 February, is not to produce a genuine democratic political solution, but rather to revamp the corrupt status quo with a sticking-plaster appearance of reform.

This is where Russia’s recent engagement in Bahrain’s political affairs should tread carefully.

Ahead of the kingdom’s political dialogue, the Russian foreign ministry hosted a delegation from Bahrain’s main extant opposition group, Al Wefaq, in Moscow. The word “extant” is used advisedly here because most of Bahrain’s more critical opposition to the regime is in prison, some of whom are serving life sentences on trumped-up charges of subversion.

The Wefaq delegation to Moscow earlier this month was led by Sheikh Ali Salman, the top figure in the mainly Shia political organization, who held talks with Russia’s deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov.

Bogdanov also met on 8 February with Bahrain’s ambassador to Russia, Hashim Hasan Al Bash. Following the series of meetings, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement: “Russia will continue to hold contacts with the kingdom’s leaders as well as representatives of opposition groups in firm support of efforts to resolve internal problems through a national consensus in the interests of all Bahrainis.”

If we give Russian diplomats the benefit of doubt, one could see their belated efforts as a well-meaning attempt to help resolve the conflict in Bahrain, where over the past two years some 100 people have been killed in clashes with state forces and thousands have been injured and imprisoned – huge numbers relative to the tiny national population of less than 600,000.

From this seemingly benevolent Russian intervention, Moscow stands to gain some kudos in the strategic Persian Gulf Arab region where the Sunni monarchies ruling over the oil-rich sheikhdoms of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates are staunch allies of the Al Khalifa regime in Bahrain. Some 30 per cent of all of the world’s shipped oil trade passes every day out the Persian Gulf, and Saudi Arabia is the world’s top oil exporter, producing 10 million barrels per day.

This strategic factor points to a connection with Syria. Russia’s engagement in Bahrain – an established British and American sphere of influence – comes at the same time that Moscow is stepping up diplomatic efforts with its Soviet-era Syrian ally to find a political solution in that country.

Syria has also been racked by two years of relentless violence, where an armed insurgency against the government of President Bashar Al Assad has been equipped and funded by the Persian Gulf monarchies, as well as by the US, Britain, France and other NATO powers, including Turkey and Germany.

The Russian foreign ministry alluded to Moscow’s joined-up diplomacy when it said: “We are certain that it’s possible, with enough political will, to ease the tensions and resolve the causes of the conflict in Bahrain as well as in other countries in the region.”

Somewhat surprisingly, recent moves towards political negotiations in Syria appear to be bearing fruit. After months of intransigence towards the government in Damascus, Moaz Al Khatib, the leader of the exile opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, suddenly announced that the SNC is ready to negotiate a political transition with President Assad. The Syrian government has reciprocated with senior members meeting opposition groups and saying that it is ready for talks with “no preconditions”.

This rapid change in political gear is best understood in the light of punishing setbacks inflicted by the formidable Syrian national army on the Syrian insurgents and their foreign mercenary networks. It therefore seems now that the West’s military option of removing Assad by force is spent.

After two years of futile skirmishing and some 70-80,000 deaths, the Western powers and their regional Sunni Arab and Turk allies have come to the realization that their desired goal of regime change in Syria is not going to happen under Plan A, namely armed subversion. Plan B – a political process – now seems to be more a feasible route.

An integral part of this trade-off is Bahrain. If Russia can help bolster the Bahraini opposition and inveigle it into accepting political terms with the Western and Saudi-backed Al Khalifa regime, then the West and the Persian Gulf monarchs will reciprocate by easing the pressure on the Assad government in Syria by: a) reducing the supply of arms to the militants in Syria, which recent reports indicate is the case; and b) pushing the SNC group into accepting negotiations with Assad, which up until recently was a non-starter but now appears to be underway.
Despite its relatively small size, Bahrain has huge strategic value. It provides the base for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and a Western military projection point across the entire Middle East. Moreover, the democratic uprising in Bahrain threatens the entire Sunni monarchial realm that presides over the Persian Gulf and which is the lynchpin of the American petrodollar global economy. Ongoing political unrest in Bahrain is a mortal threat to these vital Western interests. Therefore, it is imperative that Washington, London and the Sunni oil sheikhdoms find a way of “restoring order” in Bahrain. An implicit deal with Russia over Syria would be more than a worthwhile trade-off.

The question is: does the Bahraini pro-democracy movement stand to lose out in any grubby political quid pro quo? Or as a member of the 14th February Coalition – a revolutionary opposition group that has repudiated dialogue with the regime – put it disdainfully: “Are we being sacrificed in the bigger picture of regional geopolitics?”

For a start, the supposed “Arab Spring” comparisons between Syria and Bahrain are invalid. In Syria, the Assad government has a democratic mandate and retains popular support. The so-called uprising, championed by Western governments and news media with romantic, heroic prose, is in reality an externally driven terrorist insurgency that has no legitimacy among the mass of Syrians. This systematic violence has been fomented covertly and criminally by foreign powers.

While there is cause for political reforms in Syria – in what country is there not? – it is completely fallacious to ascribe the turmoil over the past two years to an Arab-Spring-style popular uprising for democracy. The upheavals in Syria are the manifestation of an illegal policy of regime change by Western powers and their Sunni Arab and Turk allies – all of which see the removal of Assad as an opportune blow against Shia Iran.

By contrast, for the past two years Bahrain has indeed witnessed a genuine popular uprising that conforms to the normative meaning of the Arab Spring pro-democracy movement, which swept the Middle East and North African region from Tunisia to Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Yemen in early 2011 and continues to reverberate. (Libya is another anomaly of the Arab Spring, as with Syria, which was less about genuine popular uprising and more about opportunistic NATO regime change.)

The majority of Bahrainis are demanding the right to have an elected government. The people, who are mainly Shia, want an end to the autocratic rule of the Sunni Al Khalifa monarchy that was imposed on them when the old colonial power, Britain, granted nominal independence in 1971. Tellingly, the Western governments and their subservient news media have largely ignored the plight of the Bahraini people, which by normal reasoning is a righteous cause deserving full support and media coverage.

Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf absolute monarchs have sat nervously and parlously throughout these seismic regional shocks. Popular protests and any signs of incipient dissent within the Persian Gulf enclave have been ruthlessly suppressed in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. These monarchs’ fears of a pro-democracy contagion is why they supported the invasion of Bahrain in March 2011 by the Saudi-led Peninsula Shield Defence Force to try to crush the Bahraini uprising. Yet, ironically and somewhat hilariously, these same Arab despots have lent copious diplomatic and material support to alleged pro-democracy uprisings in Libya and Syria.

Despite the ruthless repression in Bahrain, with Western acquiescence, the pro-democracy movement continues unabated. Indeed this past week, which marked the second anniversary of the uprising, has seen even greater numbers of demonstrations across the island. A 16-year-old youth, Hussein Al Jaziri, was shot dead in the village of Daih by regime forces, bringing even more protesters on to the streets. The previous week saw the deaths of 87-year-old Habib Ebrahim and eight-year-old Qassim Habib who both died after Al Khalifa uniformed police thugs saturated the villages of Malikiya and Karbabad with toxic chemical gas.

Popular outrage and demand for the downfall of the Khalifa regime has thus become even more determined and strident. The majority of the people do not want negotiations with the despised regime nor a “constitutional monarchy” – the people want the Khalifa dynasty to simply get the hell out of their lives and to make way for an elected government. “Freedom with dignity” is one of the people’s chants.

Saeed Shehabi of the Bahrain Freedom Movement said there should be no political dialogue with the Bahraini regime because it has shown itself to be illegitimate over years of systematic brutal repression and corruption at the expense of the majority of the Bahraini people. Shehabi said that the Bahraini people are well aware of the congenital Al Khalifa political maneuvers and sham political processes down through the decades in order to preserve its hold on power and privilege. He said: “It is clear from the insistence of the people of Bahrain that they believe that reform is not possible with this regime.”

American Middle East political analyst Dr Colin Cavell, who formerly taught at the University of Bahrain, shared this assessment. He said: “I agree with Saeed Shehabi that the people of Bahrain should not engage in political talks with the Al Khalifa junta, as their offer of dialogue is disingenuous and merely a show for the international media and a complete ruse.”

As already noted, Bahrain’s more radical opposition leadership has been imprisoned. They include redoubtable figures like Hasan Mushaima, Abduljalil Al Singace, Adbulhadi Al Khawaja and Nabeel Rajab, who have the respect and loyalty of the wider population. Some of these leaders are serving sentences of life imprisonment simply because they called for the unelected Khalifa regime to stand down and to be replaced by a republican form of government. This viewpoint resonates with the majority of the people who are continuing to protest on the streets calling for the downfall of the regime despite the recent opening of dialogue.

It is highly significant that the Wefaq opposition bloc, which met with the Russian foreign ministry, has given notice that it is willing to accept a political settlement with the Khalifa regime that would involve the coexistence of “constitutional monarchy” alongside an elected government. This is not what the majority of Bahrainis want. For the majority of Bahrainis, the continuance of the Khalifa regime in any shape or form in the public life of Bahrain is unacceptable. The violence and violations that the regime has committed makes any tolerance of a remnant anathema to the vast majority of the people.

It is also significant that Washington and London, the primary sponsors of the Khalifa rulers, have assiduously courted the participation of Wefaq in the latest political dialogue with the regime.

Writing in the Washington-based publication, The Hill, on 12 February, former director of US National Intelligence Dennis C Blair said that the US goal “should encourage moderate leaders within the Bahraini government and moderate leaders in the opposition… a gradual transition to a constitutional democratic monarchy is in Bahrain’s best long-term interest.”

Blair was, of course, too coy and cynical to say that this arrangement was also in Washington’s best interest. And, mischievously, he went on to describe Bahraini opponents of the Khalifa regime and its dialogue process as “hardliners”. That is a deft way of delegitimizing political voices that are outside the realm of tolerance to those in power and their patrons.

This is typical top-down political engineering. Washington, London and the Saudi patrons of the completely unacceptable regime in Bahrain are trying to force a political “compromise” on the Bahraini people – a compromise that leaves the regime intact and is far short of what the people want or deserve. By way of making this squalid solution palatable, the Western powers are trying to bestow legitimacy on any such ostensible “deal” by involving the participation of the Wefaq opposition bloc, thus providing a veneer of popular participation and consent.

But this is the politics of expedience and deception, not the politics of democratic freedom, rights and principle. It is the politics of extending cover to the selfish geopolitical interests of Washington, London and the Persian Gulf monarchs, not the politics of supporting the Bahraini people who have been denied their natural rights for more than four decades.

It would be a grave mistake for the Russian government to adopt the premise of Syria and Bahrain as being somehow equivalent and reciprocal. The former is a case of outright criminal aggression by cynical foreign powers; while Bahrain is a clear case of a people genuinely demanding democratic rights. They are separate and non-negotiable.

In the long term, Russia’s foreign policy would be more sustainable, ethical and rewarding if it was based on defending, absolutely, the national sovereign rights of Syrians, that is, without any contingent quid pro quo; while at the same time supporting, separately, the sovereign aspirations of the Bahraini people – and not on affording political cover to self-serving Western imperialist intrigues and collusion with Arab despots.

Finian Cunningham is a former editor and writer for major news media organizations. He has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages Read other articles by Finian.