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.
Still, even if it cannot always pursue as assertive a foreign policy as it may like, Qatar has a number of deep-seated, structural advantages that have allowed it to take on a more proactive role in the region. For starters, Qatar's security is guaranteed by the United States via the huge Al Udeid U.S. Air Force base, which has the longest runway in the Middle East, and Camp As Sayliyah, which is the U.S. military's largest pre-positioning base outside of the continental United States. As a result, Qatar can confidently send the majority of its fighter jets 1,800 miles away to Libya, even with a bellicose and infinitely larger neighbor -- Iran -- less than 125 miles to the northeast.
Furthermore, because Qatar is an ethnically homogenous small state, in which as few as 250,000 Qataris share in the country's bountiful wealth, popular dissent is headed off by a gold-plated welfare state. The emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifah al-Thani, although not elected, is held in deep regard by most Qataris. This fact, combined with a culture of strong conservatism, in which hierarchical familial and tribal structures instill a form of institutional deference, allows the elite to quickly make and implement decisions.
Since taking over from his father in a bloodless coup in 1995, Emir Hamad has looked to position Qatar as a leader in an era of stronger, more assertive Arab diplomacy. In the Qatari view, ruling elites in traditionally powerful countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt had become inured to the desires of ordinary Arabs and irrelevant to many of the Arab world's most pressing policy issues. As the chief of staff of Qatar's air force said in March, these countries have not "taken leadership for the past three years now."
Qatar hopes to insert itself as the key mediator between the Muslim world and the West. Qatar sees its role as a highly specialized interlocutor between the two worlds, making -- from the West's point of view -- unpalatable but necessary friendships and alliances with anti-Western leaders, including the Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal, Hezbollah's spiritual leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and the Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, to name but a few recent visitors to Doha.
Throughout the Libya crisis, Qatar has followed a similar tactic with figures from both sides of the conflict. Moussa Koussa, the high-profile defector from the Qaddafi regime who was forced to leave the United Kingdom after his arrival there generated controversy, has taken up residence in Doha's Four Seasons Hotel. Qatar is perennially pragmatic: it understands that old regime insiders such as Koussa, although heavily tainted, remain highly knowledgeable and potentially useful in negotiating between the remnants of the old system and the new guard.
Meanwhile, Ali al-Salabi, who has remained one of Libya's most prominent clerics despite being exiled in Qatar for many years, is believed to have been in contact with the elite in Qatar and Qaddafi's son Saif al-Islam, in a now stalled attempt to negotiate a ceasefire. His brother Ismail al-Salabi runs an Islamist rebel faction in Libya (the so-called February 17 Katiba) that is reputed to receive strong financial backing from Qatar. Abdul Hakim Belhaj is the commander of the Tripoli Military Council, a conglomeration of various brigades that fought to liberate Tripoli, but he is the former emir of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which was designated a terrorist organization in December 2004 by the U.S. State Department. Despite renouncing his militant past, Belhaj is, at least for Western governments, a politically radioactive personality, and so it is unsurprising that when he met with NATO officials at the end of August it was under Qatari auspices.
Similarly, Qatar recognizes that Islamists are an indelible part of the political landscape in Libya and a potentially combustible one, given that, per capita, eastern Libya alone provided twice as many would-be jihadists as any other Arabic-speaking country to the Iraqi resistance in 2007 and 2008. Ignoring or marginalizing this demographic would not be prudent; but from the West's perspective, engaging with even reformed Islamist fighters is difficult. This is the niche that Qatar is trying to fill in Libya and elsewhere.