Without its knowledge, U.S. says Egypt, UAE escalate regional power struggle.
CAIRO – Twice in the past seven days, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have secretly launched airstrikes against Islamist-allied militias battling for control of Tripoli, Libya, four senior U.S. officials said, in a major escalation of a regional power struggle set off by Arab Spring revolts.
The United States, the officials said, was caught by surprise: Egypt and the Emirates, both close allies and military partners, acted without informing the U.S., leaving the Obama administration on the sidelines. Egyptian officials explicitly denied to U.S. diplomats that their military played any role in the operation, the officials said, in what appeared a new blow to already strained relations between leaders in Washington and Cairo.
The strikes in Tripoli are another salvo in a power struggle defined by old-style Arab autocrats battling Islamist movements seeking to overturn the old order. Since the military ouster of the Islamist president in Egypt last year, the new government and its backers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have launched a campaign across the region — in the news media, in politics and diplomacy, and by arming local proxies — to roll back what they see as an existential threat to their authority posed by Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Arrayed against them and backing the Islamists are the rival states of Turkey and Qatar.
U.S. officials said the Egyptians and the Emirates had teamed up against an Islamist target inside Libya at least once before. In recent months, the officials said, teams of “special forces” operating out of Egypt but possibly composed primarily of Emirates had also successfully destroyed an Islamist camp near the eastern Libyan city of Derna, an extremist stronghold.
Several officials said in recent days that U.S. diplomats were fuming about the airstrikes, believing the intervention could further inflame the Libyan conflict as the United Nations and Western powers are seeking to broker a peaceful resolution.
Officials said the government of Qatar has already provided weapons and support to the Islamist-aligned forces inside Libya, so the new strikes represent a shift from a battle of proxies to direct involvement. It could also set off an arms race on both sides.
“We don’t see this as constructive at all,” said one senior U.S. official.
So far, counterproductive
The strikes also have, so far, proved counterproductive. Islamist-aligned militias fighting for control of Tripoli successfully seized its main airport just hours after they were hit with the second round of strikes.
“In every arena — in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Libya, even what happened in Egypt — this regional polarization, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE on one side and Qatar and Turkey on the other, has proved to be a gigantic impediment to international efforts to resolve any of these crises,” said Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Middle East specialist the State Department.
Egypt’s role, the U.S. officials said, was to provide bases for the launch of the strikes. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and other officials have issued vigorous-sounding but carefully worded public statements denying any direct action by Egyptian forces in Libya.
“There are no Egyptian aircraft or forces in Libya, and no Egyptian aircraft participated in military action inside Libya,” El-Sissi said on Sunday, the state news agency reported.
In private, the officials said, the Egyptian denials had been more sweeping.
The officials said the UAE — which boasts one of the most effective air forces in the Arab world, thanks to U.S. equipment and training — provided the pilots, warplanes and aerial refueling planes necessary for the fighters to bomb Tripoli out of bases in Egypt. It was unclear if the planes or munitions were U.S.-made.
The UAE has not commented directly on the strikes but came close to denying a role. On Monday, an Emirati state newspaper printed a statement from Anwar Gargash, minister of state for Foreign Affairs, calling any claims about an Emirati role in the attacks “a diversion” from the Libyans’ desire for “stability” and rejection of the Islamists.
‘Cloak of religion’
The allegations, he said, came from a group who “wanted to use the cloak of religion to achieve its political objectives” and “the people discovered its lies and failures.”
The UAE was once considered a sidekick to Saudi Arabia, a regional heavyweight and the dominant power among the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf. The Saudi rulers, who draw their own legitimacy from a puritanical understanding of Islam, have long feared the threat of other religious political movements, especially the well-organized and widespread Muslim Brotherhood.