Arab Perceptions of the Air Campaign Against Libya

3 MINS READMar 20, 2011 | 19:26 GMT
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa called an emergency meeting March 20 after criticizing the bombing campaign against Libya, saying such a measure goes beyond the more limited no-fly zone endorsed by his organization earlier in the month. The Arab League, which comprises Arab states from the Persian Gulf to northwest Africa, includes many countries that have been wracked by internal unrest in recent months, which, significantly, contributed to the Arab League's calling for the establishment and enforcement of a no-fly zone in the first place on March 12. While many in the Arab League have their own records of aggressively dealing with internal dissent, there is an incentive to distinguish their regimes from that of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. By coming out against the Gadhafi regime, they can appear to be coming down on the "right" side, morally speaking. However, there is also deep concern among many member states of the Arab League about being perceived as supportive of another Western war in the Arab world. As the full scope of bombings and airstrikes becomes more apparent — a comprehensive suppression of enemy air defenses campaign, the destruction of command, control and communications capabilities, and the targeting of military forces outside Benghazi are all requisite actions — the Arab states are now second-guessing their largely rhetorical support for the no-fly zone. In fact, when calling for the implementation of the no-fly zone, many Arab states seemed to be betting the West would not follow through with the operation, and they are now trying to distance themselves from a war that may not necessarily result in the end of the Gadhafi regime but may possibly result in further casualties. The Arab League as an institution may speak with one voice, but it encompasses an enormous spectrum of countries with widely divergent and at times contradictory interests. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates appear set to continue contributing combat aircraft, albeit symbolically, as they are less vulnerable to the unrest that has spread throughout the region. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Persian Gulf states are far more concerned about their respective internal crises — in particular, Saudi Arabia is concerned with its struggle with Iran — than about anything that happens in Libya itself. Countries such as Syria and Algeria are nervous about the prospect of Egypt benefiting from the Libyan crisis and expanding its influence over Libya's energy-rich eastern region of Cyrenaica. Indeed, Egypt has the most at stake in the current Libyan crisis and has thus reportedly been quietly involved in the arming and training of anti-Gadhafi rebels in the east. Egypt wants to be perceived as the Arab force most prepared to take action in defense of Libyan civilians, while avoiding the cost of being overtly involved in the operation, which allows Cairo the luxury of being able to publicly condemn the operation if things turn south. Even if the coalition forces cannot force Gadhafi from power, even a de facto division of Libya from east to west would benefit Egypt, as it could then position itself to reclaim influence in Cyrenaica.

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