The Predictable Blowback From Supporting Sectarian Authoritarianism in Bahrain

04/01/2015 05:12 pm ET | Updated Apr 17, 2015

In September 2014, President Obama outlined his administration's strategy to "degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL." In his speech, Obama promised to provide humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians affected by the conflict, including both Sunni and Shia Muslims, as part of the efforts of a broad coalition of partners. "This is American leadership at its best, "Obama stated. "We stand with people who fight for their own freedom, and we rally other nations on behalf of our common security and common humanity."

One of the numerous problems with Obama's strategy is that Bahrain, one of the Obama administration's partners in fighting ISIS, has committed crimes against humanity against its people, and continues to commit egregious human rights violations. Since the uprising began four years ago on February 14, 2011 -- a day commemorated on Saturday under the slogan, "Strike of Defiance" -- members of Bahrain's political opposition and human rights activists have been specifically targeted for arbitrary detention and charged with crimes such as "inciting hatred of the regime" and "attempting to overthrow the government." Bahrain has used excessive force on protesters and has tortured individuals as a form of punishment and as a means to force confessions, in some cases resulting in death.

Matar E. Matar, former Bahraini MP and opposition leader, recently wrote about efforts that sought democratic reforms and greater respect for human rights. He wrote, "Given our inability to protect our people from such abuse, several colleagues and I decided to resign our positions in Parliament in protest. I was then arrested while trying to inform the world about the casualties from excessive force and extensive torture."

Matar noted how the Obama administration was more interested in gaining support for the 2011 intervention in Libya than it was in supporting the popular uprising in Bahrain. In her memoir Hard Choices, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote about how a senior official from the United Arab Emirates - who, along with Saudi Arabia, sent its military to Bahrain to aid in the crushing of the uprising - pressured her against criticizing the invasion in return for the UAE's support of the anti-Qaddafi campaign. "Frankly, when we have a situation with our armed forces in Bahrain it's hard to participate in another operation if our armed forces' commitment in Bahrain is questioned by our main ally," she quotes the UAE official as saying. The pressure worked. Later that day, Secretary Clinton issued a statement that lent credibility to the actions of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. So much for Obama's claim that his administration stands with people who fight for their freedom.

The Bahraini government has intentionally transformed what was a popular uprising, one that involved upwards of one-quarter of Bahrain's population when it began four years ago, into a sectarian struggle. It has largely succeeded, and in doing so, has facilitated the radicalization of members of its police and security forces, some of who have joined ISIS, and called on others to do the same.

Nabeel Rajab, Director of Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was arrested (again) in October 2014 for pointing out this inconvenient truth, and charged with "publicly insulting official institutions." Rajab tweeted, "Many #Bahrain men who joined #terrorism & #ISIS came from security institutions and those institutions were the first ideological incubator." As part of its propaganda campaign, ISIS released a video in September 2014 that showed four Bahrainis carrying Kalashnikovs. These Bahrainis called on Sunnis in Bahrain to discard any allegiance to the Bahraini monarchy and, instead, to pledge their loyalty to ISIS.

In a recent Huffington Post blog, Giorgio Cafiero and Daniel Wagner wrote comprehensively about the radicalization of Bahrain's security forces. They noted how Bahrain recruits Sunni police officers from Jordan, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen, giving these recruits better pay than they would receive at home, as well as Bahraini citizenship as part of an effort to dilute the Shia majority in Bahrain. Yet, this policy "has potential to lead to further penetration of Daesh [ISIS] influence within the state security apparatus."

Even as Bahrain participates in attacks against ISIS as part of the broad coalition, it has been "lenient vis-à-vis Daesh and al-Qaeda sympathizers within Bahrain itself....This represents a contradictory dichotomy, which may be interpreted as a de facto appeasement of these groups within the Kingdom." While Rajab was arrested for "publicly insulting official institutions," supporters of ISIS, as noted by Cafiero and Wagner, are permitted to demonstrate such support by flying flags from their cars.

Cafiero and Wagner conclude that the Government of Bahrain's duplicity might be motivated by self-preservation. "Put simply, the government is afraid of alienating Sunni supporters, including certain tribes led by figures who have expressed support for Daesh, despite the group's call to Bahrain's Sunnis to abandon loyalty to the Khalifa family."

Where does that leave the U.S.? The Obama administration is supporting an anti-democratic monarchy in Bahrain that institutionally discriminates against its Shia population, hires Sunni police officers from hotbeds of ISIS support and awards them citizenship in order to decrease the level of Shia majority, and tolerates support for ISIS among members of its population, including its police and security forces. I can't help but think that I've heard this one before.