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Arab support for military action against Libya was initially strong, arguably stemming from a desire to change the focus of international and domestic attention. But as civilian casualties increase, the political calculus is changing - and Arab support is wavering.
By David Roberts for RUSI.org
On 12 March the Arab League, having suspended Libya's membership, voted in favour of supporting a United Nations (UN)-backed military action against Libya in the form of enforcing a no-fly zone. Limited and careful as their wording was - Syria and Algeria balked at the phrase 'foreign intervention' - it is still extraordinarily rare for Arab states to come together to support any kind of international military campaign against a fellow Arab state.
The official reason that the Arab League supported some kind of intervention or involvement was for the need to 'protect the civilian population'. Yet this is hardly an adequate explanation. Humanitarian concern is rarely - if ever - the ultimate arbiter of decisions in the international arena, where notions of absolute sovereignty are habitually prized above all else.
The more international and local media focuses on shots of a Libyan plane crashing to the ground or Tomahawk missiles being launched from Western battleships off the Libyan coast, the less the media is focusing on other simmering conflicts around the region. For example, because Saudi Arabia voted for some kind of action against Libya there has been, ipso facto, less coverage of its own sporadic domestic protests and intervention in Bahrain.
Moreover, at a time of ferment throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, it may be considered opportune and useful for leaders, wary for their own sake, to show that they are aware of the prevailing mood and will 'combat injustice' when they see it. As long as these sentiments can be harnessed and focused externally, it may be felt - rightly or wrongly - that such actions will go some way to establishing revolutionary credentials with minimal domestic reforms. Or, more to the point, given the near-universal popular support for the opposition against Qadhafi's onslaught, maybe Arab leaders were afraid of not supporting some kind of action and the potential domestic ramifications thereof.
A leader cognisant of the prevailing mood, aware of the potential dangers of fighting against the current of international opinion and consequently supporting action against Qadhafi, may also garner support from America and other Western countries. This, in and of itself, given Western proclivities for favouring change in Iran but not Saudi Arabia, in Libya but not in Bahrain, would be a savvy path to tread.
Qatar and the UAE
Initially, American officials noted that the Arab League would have to 'participate' - simply offering rhetorical support would be insufficient. Curiously, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates emerged as the Arab states taking the lead in supporting the no-fly zone.
Most assumed that Qatar, for example, would support efforts by allowing America to use Central Command - based near Doha - to oversee operations. However, it now appears that Qatar is contributing six of its Mirage 2000 fighter-jets along with two cargo planes. The UAE was also expected to contribute twelve F-16s and twelve Mirage jets for use against Libyan targets.
It is theoretically easier to understand the UAE's desire to join in with this operation. In recent years the UAE has spent tens of billions of dollars on importing a wide variety of armaments, so much so that from 2006 to 2010 it accounted for nearly a quarter of all major weapons deals in the Middle East. Given the UAE's strategic location, it is logical to assume that these weapons were bought explicitly for defence purposes. Therefore, a high-profile demonstration of their potency may, in addition to their acquisition in the first place, contribute to the UAE's deterrence.
In contrast, Qatar's security is not based on the deterrence value of their own military, which has received but a fraction of materiel as compared to the UAE, but on the presence of America's Central Command. Rather, in sending fighter aircraft to Libya, Qatar is pursuing its default policy of the past fifteen years, consistently seeking the international limelight, usually in a humanitarian or educational context. Certainly, this is the first time that Qatar has used such raw, hard power, for it typically concentrates on far softer methods, but the underlying reasoning is the same: to take part in a popular action to assuage, for example, a humanitarian crisis.
Yet as Qatari jets near Libya, Arab support wavers. Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League, complained on 20 March about the scale of the attacks on Libya. The loss of Arab support, given existing issues with Russia and China, would be highly damaging. However, the very next day Moussa, in conjunction with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, reaffirmed Arab support for the action. His earlier wavering has been widely ascribed to his expected candidacy for the Egyptian Presidency, hence decrying the loss of civilian life from Allied attacks for domestic Egyptian consumption.
Even with Moussa's renewed support of the mission, there are growing murmurs of discontent throughout the Arab world and beyond. Fundamentally, in addition to growing casualties, even with the need to appear to 'understand' and 'support' the will of the people in the face of Qadhafi's onslaught, many governments fear the precedent that they may be setting by allowing - nay supporting - regime change.
Moreover, the latest reports to emerge regarding the UAE deployment suggest a key shift in policy. The National, the UAE's flagship English language newspaper, reported that the UAE would limit its support to humanitarian aid and not military action over 'disagreements with the West over Bahrain.'
This is an interesting move. Despite the official reasoning, the core motive of this change has nothing to do with the West's attitude towards Iran's involvement (or lack thereof) in Bahrain's troubles, but instead highlights just how sensitive the Emirati government is towards the prevailing sentiment. When the Arab consensus was pro-intervention, they supported it. Yet now that such sentiment is wavering and - crucially - civilians are being inadvertently killed, the calculus has evidently changed. The cost of Emirati pilots mistakenly killing civilians in an increasingly unpopular conflict where Qadhafi is reportedly 'recruiting' civilian shields for installations means that they will eschew the potential benefits (bolstering their deterrence, etc.) for fear of prompting domestic unrest.
Qatar has a similar calculation to make. Yet not only has the state historically been quite a contrarian, often eschewing the typical consensus, but it is not a federation with demonstrably poorer relations within it. In short, there is a greater opportunity for unrest in the UAE, specifically in the northern Emirates, than there is in Qatar. The risk of causing civilian casualties must be weighed against the potentially iconic and positive footage on Al Jazeera of a Qatari jet spearing through the air on a 'humanitarian mission', acting as the very personification of Arab support.
Moreover, it is important to point out that Qatar's contribution is far from token. Though specific figures are difficult to obtain, Qatar's deployment probably accounts for the majority of its operational fast-jet wing and the transport wing of its Air Force. Clearly, Qatar is making a strong, public and Western-oriented statement in joining in with the military operations.
Nevertheless, there are risks. While Western allies will be extremely grateful for this significant show of support and there is much kudos to potentially garner, Qatari jets causing collateral damage could be highly damaging. Indeed, it would make sense for, if operationally possible, the Qatari Mirage jets to attack the most inanimate of inanimate targets or to strictly enforce the no-fly zone, minimizing the risk of civilian casualties. Such an outcome would be best not only for Qatar and the coalition, but potentially for Libya as well.
Main image courtesy of Omar Chatriwala
 Ethan Bronner & David Sanger 'Arab League Endorses No-Flight Zone Over Libya' New York Times 12 March 2011
 Gavin Davids 'UAE is top weapons importer in Middle East' Arabian Business 16 March 2011
 Donald Macintrye 'Arab support wavers as second night of bombing begins' The Independent 21 March 2011
 Colin Randall & Kareen Shaheen 'Cracks begin in international anti-Qaddafi coalition' The National, 23 March 2011
 Kareen Shaheen & Ola Salem 'Ex-airforce chief says no to UAE planes in Libya' The National, 22 March 2011