The Obama administration and other Western governments have rightly lambasted Russia and China for blocking action by the U.N. Security Council on Syria. The government of Vladimir Putin is particularly culpable for propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad: In addition to vetoing a Security Council resolution, it has been supplying Damascus with weapons. In contrast, though it suffered a diplomatic defeat, the United States will ultimately reap the benefit of siding with the Syrian people. As President Obama said in a searing statement Saturday, by rejecting the regime and its criminal brutality “we stand for principles that include universal rights for all people and just political and economic reform.”
For that stance to be effective, however, it must be consistent across the region. After all, quite apart from democratic principles, the Obama administration has a strategic interest in overturning the Assad government, which is Iran’s closest Middle East ally. Its tough position there won’t mean as much unless it is also applied to Arab states that are allies — including those that stand with the United States on Iran.
That’s why U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf emirate of Bahrain continues to be disturbing. In some respects, the year-old conflict in that island nation is the inverse of Syria’s: A Sunni ruling family and elite is battling a disempowered Shiite majority. The same Sunni Arab states that demand a “democratic transition” in Syria have sent troops to Bahrain to help ensure the regime’s survival, while Shiite Iran, which has given military support to the Assad regime, is calling for democracy for Bahrain.
Bahrain’s repression of its protesters isn’t comparable to Syria’s: Some 40 deaths have been recorded in the island emirate, compared to 7,000 or more killed by Mr. Assad. The ruling al-Khalifa family has also done more to reach out to the opposition, including appointing an independent commission to report on abuses by the security forces and recommend reforms. However, the regime has yet to offer meaningful power-sharing with the Shiite opposition, much less democracy. A number of opposition leaders remain imprisoned. And near-daily clashes between security forces and protesters have been growing worse, even as the Feb. 14 anniversary of the popular uprising approaches.
The United States has exceptional influence in Bahrain, in part because the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet is based there. But the Obama administration has mostly refrained from using that influence. It tried to go forward with a $53 million arms sales package last year until it met stiff resistance in Congress. Now the State Department has disclosed that the administration is releasing “previously notified equipment needed for Bahrain’s external defense and support of 5th Fleet operations,” including spare parts.
A statement said that the administration was “maintaining a pause on most security assistance for Bahrain pending further progress on reform.” Nevertheless, the transfer of any military aid now sends the wrong message, both to the Khalifa regime and to the region. U.S. criticism of Russia for continuing to arm the Assad regime will sound more credible when American military aid to Arab allies engaged in repression comes to a complete and unambiguous halt.
Washington Post (Feb. 7)