Intense fighting has been ongoing in Libya for weeks, with violence reaching such a pitch that many embassies have been evacuated. Rival militias – split into two main factions that can be crudely characterised as Islamist and nationalist – have been battling each other for control of the capital, Tripoli, and its airport. Libya's elected government, dominated by liberals and federalists, has been forced to flee to the eastern city of Tobruk. The government – weak, but backed by the west – has appealed for international support to protect key infrastructure like oil fields and the airport.
Amidst this chaotic state of civil war, there have been two disputed air strikes. On August 17, more than a dozen sites in Tripoli held by a coalition of Islamist militias and their allies from the city of Misrata were struck from the air. The attacks were so precise that they immediately prompted speculation that foreign jets were involved. France, Italy and NATO all issued denials. On August 23, there was a second wave of attacks, which killed 17 people and hit ammunition dumps and the interior ministry building captured by the faction the day before.
While air attacks in support of nationalist forces (opposed to the Islamists) have been ongoing for the past three months, these targets have been in Benghazi, 400 miles east of Tripoli. Libyan planes do not have the range or the mid-air refuelling capability to strike the capital from their bases in the east. This, and other evidence, added to speculation that the strikes were carried out by foreign players.
Now, American officials have said that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt were behind the bombings. US officials told the New York Times and the AFP news agency that UAE pilots flying out of Egyptian airbases targeted the Islamist fighters vying for control of Tripoli. Apparently Washington was not consulted.
Ultimately, the air strikes were ineffective, as they failed to stop Islamist militias from capturing Tripoli later that week and declaring a new breakaway regime. Members of the defunct Islamist-dominated assembly reconvened and declared a rival government. But regardless of this outcome, the incident still highlights an important shift in regional politics, suggesting that countries like the UAE and Egypt are stepping up their opposition to Islamist movements from repression within their own borders, to policing affiliated movements in other countries.
Since the Arab Spring began in 2011, Islamist movements have undermined the region's traditional order of monarchies and secular dictatorships. In July last year, Egypt's military ousted the elected Muslim Brotherhood government, and has since been engaged in a brutal crackdown of the movement's activities within Egypt. The UAE – along with other Arab countries – has also long repressed the activities of the Brotherhood.
If the US allegations about airstrikes in Libya are true, it could be evidence that both countries are concerned about the rise of militias in Libya affiliated to the Brotherhood, and want to prevent such militias from gaining power.
Some analysts have expressed anxiety about Libya becoming the site for a proxy war between the UAE and Egypt on the one hand, and Qatar – a Gulf state that backs the Islamists – on the other. Since 2011, the UAE and Qatar have been at loggerheads in Libya, with the UAE providing a home to Libya's top nationalist politician, Mahmoud Jibril, and Qatar hosting Ali Salabi, one of the country's most influential Islamists. Both men have been at the heart of Libya's politics despite their exile. The anxiety is that intervention by one side – in this case, the UAE – will step up intervention from the other side – Qatar – and fuel the conflict further and further. The US has already alleged that Qatar is arming the Islamists.
In a joint statement issued by the US State Department, the US, France, Germany Italy and the UK condemned foreign interference in Libya: "We believe outside interference exacerbates current divisions and undermines Libya's democratic transition." The UN's new envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leon, echoed these concerns, saying that "foreign intervention won't help Libya get out of chaos".
Some have suggested that it is this very inaction from the west that has encouraged regional powers to get involved in Libya. "The strikes likely indicate frustration in Cairo and Abu Dhabi with the lack of US action to stabilise Libya and act against growing anarchy in the Middle East," Simon Henderson wrote for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. For now, the chaos continues.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.