Behind Qatar's Intervention In Libya
Speculation is swirling as to why Wadah Khanfar, the director general of the Arab world's most powerful satellite news broadcaster, resigned his post last week. But the real question is whether the network can survive the challenges it now faces.
Among the many countries that supported Libya's rebels in their fight to unseat Muammar al-Qaddafi, Qatar was a particularly enthusiastic partner. The Arab emirate of just 1.6 million people, rich in oil and gas, was the first Arab country to recognize the rebel government, the Transitional National Council. It sold Libyan oil on behalf of the rebels to avoid sanctions and supplied them with gas, diesel, and millions of dollars in aid. And Al Jazeera, the satellite broadcaster based in Doha, covered the struggle of the Libyan rebels in even greater detail and depth than it has the Arab world's other revolutionary movements.
On the surface, such actions appear in line with Qatar's recent behavior. Since the mid-1990s, Qatar has pursued an activist foreign policy, using its affluence, unthreatening military position, and skills as a mediator to interject itself in conflicts around the Middle East and beyond.
Still, Qatar's actions in Libya took most analysts by surprise when, in March, it sent six Mirage fighter jets (which likely represented the majority of Qatar's operational fighter strength) to join in NATO air operations. This move signaled a qualitative change in Qatari foreign policy. Over the years, the country has involved itself (with mixed success) in a range of international disputes: In 2008, it mediated a successful resolution to the 18-month-long political stalemate in Lebanon, and in recent years has facilitated temporary agreements between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels. But never before has Qatar so overtly supported one side or made such an active intervention.
Nor were fighters the only matériel the emirate sent the rebels. In April, Qatari transport aircraft regularly departed Doha with armaments for the rebels, including French-made Milan antitank missiles and Belgian-made FN assault rifles. Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani declared that Qatar was sending "defensive" weaponry to the rebels, but news accounts from Tripoli suggest the support went even further. Qatari special forces reportedly provided basic infantry training to Libyan rebel fighters in the Nafusa Mountains, to the west of Tripoli, and eastern Libya. The Qatari military even brought Libyan fighters back to Doha for special exercises. And in the final assault on Qaddafi's Bab al- Aziziya compound on August 24, Qatari special forces were seen on the front lines of the fight.
Participating in active fighting is a far cry from Qatar's previously cautious behavior: aside from a couple of small border skirmishes and a role in a battle in Operation Desert Storm, Qatari forces have barely fired a shot in anger.
The central reason for this dramatic break in Qatar's traditional foreign policy lies not within the halls of power in Qatar but rather with the particulars of the Libyan situation itself. Qatar may have the experience and tools to intervene, but because it is a small country, both geographically and militarily, in a region traditionally dominated by behemoth states, Qatar does not have the muscle to insert itself unilaterally into any conflict.
Rather, Qatar must have the support and permission of the international community, as it did in the case of Libya. In March, the Arab League, thanks largely to the revolutionary fervor sweeping the region, recognized the rebel forces and took the unprecedented step of offering its support for a NATO-led no-fly zone against one of its own.
It took this unusual alignment of international interests for Qatar to feel comfortable with direct intervention. Elsewhere in the region, basic geopolitical realities preclude deeper Qatari action regardless of the desires in Doha.
It is instructive, for example, to contrast Libya with Syria. If the Qatari elite had the ability and opportunity, they would likely choose to intervene to stop Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brutal crackdown against dissent, if for humanitarian reasons alone. Moreover, as a Sunni state wary of the expansion of Shia power throughout the region, Qatar would snatch the opportunity to turn Syria away from its current orientation toward Iran.
Yet it is all but impossible at the moment for Qatar to intervene in Syria. There is no international consensus for direct action; meanwhile, Syria's security forces are better organized and trained than those in Libya and would present a stiffer challenge. Unlike in Libya, the geography of Syria does not offer thousands of miles of empty space, and there is no section of the country that is already in rebel hands. Moreover, Syria is both a more complex and influential country than Libya, making intervention highly risky, perhaps impossibly so.
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