Time for Plan B

Two years into Bahrain’s political unrest, military analysts are asking if it is time for Washington to look at a new home for the US Fifth Fleet

A number of events in July again highlighted the difficult situation a two-year old anti-government uprising is posing for the US naval presence in Bahrain.

It was reported that three US surveillance ships had docked in Bahrain as Washington planned to double its presence in the region amid escalating tensions with Iran.

The new hardware will support maritime security operations carried out by the Fifth Fleet and by spring its size is likely to have increased to ten ships based permanently in Bahrain.

Just days after this announcement, reports claimed a Bahraini policeman had been killed in a bomb explosion as security forces attempted to deal with a suspected terror attack on a police station.

The island state of Bahrain has come under intense scrutiny since violent unrest broke out in 2011. Several deaths have been attributed to protests in the capital Manama, while the government has been accused of suppressing dissent in a bid to hold onto power.

In the midst of these ongoing tensions, a report from a US think tank has posed a previously unthinkable question: is it time for the Fifth Fleet to leave Bahrain?

“In view of the ongoing political unrest, the possibility of losing strategic basing rights in Bahrain is something that should be carefully considered,” says US Navy Commander Richard McDaniel, author of No “Plan B”: US Strategic Access in the Middle East and the Question of Bahrain.

According to McDaniel, the conventional wisdom among most military experts and planners in the US Department of Defence is that “losing Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain is unlikely” and “the Saudis and the United States would never allow it”.

This theory is backed by Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Washington, DC-based Institute for the Study of War. “It is unlikely that the US will initiate the process of exiting from Bahrain any time soon. We have spent too much money and effort building it up. The US is most likely to contribute to a negotiated solution to the unrest in Bahrain if we keep the base there. If the US were to leave Bahrain, we would lose any ability to influence the outcome.”

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