Isn't it time we backed Bahrain's revolution?

As the first anniversary of the uprising approaches, it is time for the west to reassess its support

"The she-camel has been impregnated" goes the old Arabic saying, suggesting a looming (usually disastrous) outcome which is all but inevitable. For the past 12 months, Bahrain's ruling monarchy has tried to abort a pregnancy which began in the frenzy of the Arab Spring - but the foetus has proved too mature. The country's mass uprising which began a year ago, on 14 February 2011, was the result of many decades of abuse.

Medieval-style absolutist rule in this island nation was never going to last forever, but the regime's stubbornly uncompromising approach to the Bahraini people's grievances is ensuring an accelerated downfall for the Al Khalifa family's 230-year old dynasty. A year on since the uprising began, just after that in Egypt, and despite the brutal crackdown, the prognosis for the Bahraini regime is bleaker than ever.

Three months after the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report found a systematic policy of abuse, torture and discrimination on the basis of sectarian affiliation, the regime of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah has failed to implement any tangible reforms to satisfy the opposition. The government's well-documented brutality, coupled with a sense of hopelessness, has resulted in an escalation of protests and almost total loss of authority over several key areas of the small Gulf kingdom. Townships such as Bani Jamrah (one of the country's fiercest anti-regime hotspots) is completely out of regime control after dark. The key suburb of Sitra, dubbed "capital of the revolution", is also a no-go zone for representatives of the government.

Yet when we examine the diplomatic rhetoric here in the west, there is no consistency. Just this past week, there have been renewed calls from US politicians to arm the Syrian rebels (though dismissed); in Bahrain, however, the US government has consistently and strongly condemned any violent acts against the regime carried out by the protesters on the streets. The double standard, even given the US's record, is staggering.

Before the Bahraini regime crackdown began in February and March 2011, anti-government demonstrations on the island were characterised by two unique features: massive turnouts (on one occasion, 300,000 people marched across the capital, representing a quarter of the population), and the largely nonviolent nature of the protesters who raised nothing other than the national flag and offered roses to Bahraini police officers.

Much has transpired since then and the regime's unrelenting violence against peaceful protests has changed the rules of the game. Instead of large mass protests, there are now many small pockets of resistance (called "battalions", even though they only carry sticks and wear white shrouds denoting a readiness to die). Instead of roses being handed out to police, Molotov cocktails have become increasingly common, and are used to push back security vehicles when they invade Shia villages. With the regime's security forces using Molotov cocktails against unarmed protesters, is it any wonder that the protesters soon picked up the habit and began to do the same? With more than 40 faith leaders imprisoned and women publicly assaulted for taking part in peaceful protests, ordinary people feel compelled to fight back.

As countless videos and pictures posted on social networking sites have shown, unarmed protesters in Bahrain have been confronted with state-sponsored savagery and vile acts of murder and abuse. Once the protests were violently quelled, hundreds of people were then detained, tortured, even sexually assaulted. A campaign of intimidation - which has included the demolition of dozens of licensed Shia places of worship and holy sites, the prevention of religious rituals, thousands of arbitrary detentions, around 60 extrajudicial killings, and the imprisonment of physicians for treating injured protesters - has resulted in two impossibly difficult scenarios. If the regime backs down now and releases opposition leaders (including the head of Amal, an officially licensed political society), the protesters will then be further emboldened to continue what they started last year. But if the brutal crackdown continues, so too will the resistance. The Bahraini king is now like the man who steps on a landmine: if he walks off, it will rip him apart, but keeping his foot on the bomb is not a viable option either.

In the midst of all this, the traditional opposition groups (also known as "political societies") are becoming increasingly irrelevant as support grows for a secretive and highly organied youth movement called the Coalition of 14 February. This coalition has called for the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a representative and democratic system of governance. Its message has resonated much more powerfully with the youths than the traditional political societies, which are more supportive of the regime's promises to reform the existing undemocratic system.

Meanwhile, the Bahraini government's western allies have largely ignored both the crackdown and the resulting escalation. The United States, which has much at stake in the region, could have won the hearts and minds of the vast majority of people in Bahrain by condemning the regime's repression from the outset. It could have negotiated the release of the various political detainees and cancelled its arms contracts with the Bahraini security forces. Instead, the United States chose to stand idly by as innocent people were killed and tortured, offering the Bahraini people nothing more than a box of doughnuts and some empty rhetoric. At least, this is how many Bahrainis that I have spoken to see things. The US Navy's Fifth Fleet is stationed in their own backyard, and yet, rather than offering tangible help to a persecuted people, it is the despotic regime which remains the beneficiary of US tactical assistance.

This is a strategic mistake. Imagine the consequences if the western powers had sided with the Hosni Mubarak regime or that of Colonel Gaddafi until the very end. But this is exactly what our governments are doing in relation to Bahrain: ignoring the facts on the ground and the obvious reality that this regime is hanging by a thread. Had it not been for Saudi military support and the West's political backing, the truth is that this unelected Al Khalifa regime would have collapsed long ago.

Whether western leaders decide to cut their losses or keep the Bahraini government on life support for the time being, by far the worst thing they can do is bury their heads in the sand and assume everything is going to be all right. It is madness to bargain with an absolute monarch who has lost the trust, support and respect of his subjects. To do so will only further alienate the people, who will not forget that they were abandoned by the west in their hour of need. The truth is that this particular she-camel will never be the same, having suffered a most painful labour. However much some wish to see the foetus gone, it is far too late for an abortion.

Sayed Mahdi Al-Modaressi is a Shia cleric and chief executive of Ahlulbayt Television Network. @sayedmodarresi

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.