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Archive for February, 2013

Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus

 

Bahrain is comprised of a group of islands located near the Western shore of the Persian Gulf. Given its physical location and local political reality, Bahrain has been ruled primarily by successive Persian empires since well before the birth of Christ.

What makes Bahrain different from all of its Persian Gulf neighbors is the fact that it is home to US Naval Forces Central Command and the US Fifth Fleet at Naval Support Activity Bahrain (NSA Bahrain).   Initially begun as a modest support activity to the smallish US Naval presence in the Gulf when the British left Bahrain in 1971, it is currently undergoing over a half billion dollar expansion which will double its current 62 acres and seriously upgrade its security and its ability to support Fifth Fleet Gulf operations.

The Fifth Fleet normally consists of around 20 ships, with about 1,000 people ashore and 15,000 afloat.  It usually contains a Carrier Battle Group, an Amphibious Ready Group, combat aircraft, and other support units and ships.

NSA Bahrain is designed to play a major support role in all naval operational activities in the Gulf, particularly in tactical air support of ground operations in Syria, Iran or elsewhere, should America decide to become militarily further involved in the Middle East.

Bahrain became independent of England in 1971.  Geographically situated as it is, 120 miles due south of Shia Iran, there is small wonder that Sectarian issues exist because the Muslim share which is about 82% of the population, is comprised of 70% Shia and 30% Sunni.

Nationally, they are even more diverse.  In an overall population 1.2 million, Bahrainis are in the minority at 46%, with 54% non-native, primarily Sunnis.  Of those non-natives, “other Arabs” comprise 5.4%, Africans 1.6%, Asians 45.6%, Americans 0.4%, and Europeans 1.0%.  From these facts, it is clear that the labor demands of the nation far exceed the available workers.

The Al Khalifa royal family has ruled Bahrain since the late 18th century.  Virtually all important government jobs are held by members of that royal Sunni family, specifically and importantly including all the security and police organs.  It is widely charged in Bahrain that many if not most of those forces are non-native mercenaries.

Significant civil protests begin in Bahrain on February 14, 2011, with Bahrainis calling for greater political freedom and fairer treatment of the majority Shia population by the minority Sunni government. The government reacted swiftly, repressively and brutally to what were essentially peaceful demonstration.  Security forces killed and wounded indiscriminately during these early protest marches, demonstrations and funerals, and arrested thousands of Bahrainis.

These early protests cooled a bit when an investigative body, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, sanctioned by the government, confirmed the Bahraini government’s use of systematic torture and other forms of physical and psychological abuse on detainees, as well as other human rights violations.

Since that time, Bahrain has been in a state of sustained civil resistance and disobedience, most recently over the death of a protestor, and more protests are expected for the imminent second anniversary of the 2011 uprising. This has left the country in a state of turmoil for over two years despite the beginning of talks between Shia and Sunnis designed to find a way out of the various demands being made against the Bahrain government.

Bahrain has all the ingredients that foster insecurity in the Middle East.  Most important among those is the fact that Bahrain is ruled by a minority Sunni Government under the nose of Shia Iran.  The potential for Iran to make mischief is almost limitless in Bahrain, particularly given the presence there of the US Fifth Fleet.

Further, where tribalism does exist, it is almost overridden by the large numbers of foreigners who live and work for the relatively high wages available in Bahrain.  Those foreigners represent an additional wild card in the event of greater turmoil in Bahrain.

Most important, Bahrain is the home away from home for the US Fifth Fleet which does all its bunkering and support work at NSA Bahrain.  The Fifth Fleet would carry a critical load in any further hostilities in the region. Because any such hostilities are likely to be based on sectarian issues, the fact that half the Bahrain population is Shia, politically discontent and religiously aligned with and friendly to Iran, could create enormous security problems for the Fifth Fleet.

 

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First Published in the Barre Times-Argus and the Rutland Herald

Lebanon is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on the face of the earth with evidence of human activity going back over 7,000 years.

Probably because of its topography, which features wild 10,000 foot mountains, Lebanon has a large supply of defensible sites for towns and villages.  In the Fourth Century, Christianity began to spread in the region. Roman persecution of it saw the movement of those Maronite Christians into the Lebanese mountains where they survived first the Romans and then the Muslims and thrive to this day.

Lebanon’s population of about 4 million is divided at about 95% Arab and 4% Armenian, although it should be noted that many of Lebanon’s Christians prefer not to be classified as “Arabs,” but rather to be called “Phoenicians”.

Religiously very diverse, the Lebanese are 60% Muslims (30% Shia, 24% Sunni and 5% Druze) and 40% Christians (21% Maronite, 8% Greek Orthodox and 7% Greek Catholic).

Lebanese populations often live in religious communities, which are not unlike some of the tribal societies that one finds in other Arab countries.  More often referred to as clans or families, these groups often have their own armed gangs that pursue clan interests.  It is said that having once totaled over 80 such tribes, the number is now down to between 30 and 35.

In addition, Lebanon is home to roughly a half million Palestinian refugees from what is now Israel with half of them living in refugee camps plus a quarter million Syrian refugees from the ongoing Syrian fighting, all of which is potentially destabilizing.

Syrian and Lebanese histories have been so intertwined over the centuries that many Syrians have considered Lebanon to properly be a part of greater Syria.  This has led to a pattern of active Syrian meddling in Lebanese affairs, including the effective occupation of that country from 1976 until 2005.

Most important, Lebanon is also home to Hezbollah, a Shia Islamic political party and militant group that has waged almost continuous war against Israel since the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.  Hezbollah was inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and has consistently called for the destruction of the state of Israel.  It is supported militarily by Iran and politically by Syria. The trio of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah has sought to deter or contain Israeli attacks while challenging U.S.-Israeli hegemony in Lebanon.

On short notice, Hezbollah can mobilize hundreds of thousands of demonstrators supporting its various causes and is said to be able to field fighting forces of 10,000 men.  It has enough seats in the Lebanese Government to give it veto power over government operations.  It runs its own social and medical services, TV and radio stations for its Shia adherents.  In short, Hezbollah is a government within a government.

Lebanon is by its very nature at the mercy of its environment.  Its demographics and geographic location make it about as involuntarily vulnerable to events in the Arab world as could possibly be.  The lion’s share of that vulnerability results from its close proximity of Israel and the presence in Lebanon of Hezbollah.

As the primary enemy of most of the Arab world, Israel is continuously targeted by one Arab group or another.  It started with the Palestine Liberation Organization and continues today with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Lebanon has the great misfortune to be sandwiched in between Israel and Syria.  As both Syria and Lebanon have significant Shia populations and because Hezbollah is supported by the Shia government in Syria as well as by Shia Iran, Lebanon is the focus for Arab paramilitary ground activity against Israel. In the case of the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel War, consensus says there was no real winner, not a bad result for a ragtag militant group against a powerful military nation.

In addition to the hundreds of rockets it regularly rains down on Israel, it is reported that Hezbollah has at least 100 ground-to-ground rockets that can reach Tel Aviv.  Syria has one of the largest stores of chemical weapons in the Middle East.  It is also now being reported that Syria, should the Assad regime be forced out of power, might be persuaded to give some of that Chemical WMD to Hezbollah to be mounted on those rockets, an act totally unacceptable to Israel.

The mere possibility that that even might happen underlines the fact that the Middle East, in this case Lebanon with all its national, tribal and sectarian instabilities, is on the edge of chaos virtually all the time, chaos that could easily engulf the entire region.

 

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