Militants celebrate after capturing the Tripoli international airport. (AFP)
Cairo, Aug. 25: Twice in the last seven days, Egypt and the UAE have secretly teamed up to launch airstrikes against Islamist-allied militias battling for control of Tripoli, Libya, four senior American officials said, in a major escalation between the supporters and opponents of political Islam.
The US, the officials said, was caught by surprise: Egypt and the Emirates, both close allies and military partners, acted without informing Washington or seeking its consent, leaving the Obama administration on the sidelines. Egyptian officials explicitly denied the operation to American diplomats, the officials said.
The strikes are another high-risk and destabilising salvo unleashed in a struggle for power that has broken out across the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolts, pitting old-line Arab autocrats against Islamists.
Since the military ouster of the Islamist President in Egypt one year ago, the new Egyptian government, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have formed a bloc exerting influence in countries around the region to rollback what they see as a competing threat from Islamists. Arrayed against them are the Islamist movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by friendly governments in Turkey and Qatar, that sprang forward amid the Arab spring revolts.
Libya is the latest, and hottest, battleground. Several officials said that US diplomats were fuming about the airstrikes, believing they could further inflame the Libyan conflict at a time when the UN and western powers are seeking a peaceful resolution.
“We don’t see this as constructive at all,” said one senior American official.
Officials said that 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 proxy wars — where regional powers playout their agendas through local allies — to direct involvement.
The strikes have also proved counterproductive so-far: the Islamist militias fighting for control of Tripoli successfully seized its airport the night after they were hit with the second round of strikes.
American officials said Egypt had provided bases for the launch of the strikes. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and other officials have issued vigorous but carefully worded public statements denying any direct involvement inside Libya by Egyptian forces. In private, officials said, their denials had been more thorough.
The officials said that the UAE — believed to have one of the most effective air forces in the region, thanks to American aid and training — provided the pilots, warplanes, and aerial refuelling planes necessary for the fighters to bomb Tripoli out of bases in Egypt.
The UAE has not commented directly on the strikes. But today an Emirati state newspaper printed a statement from Anwar Gargash, minister of state for foreign affairs, calling questions about an Emirati role “an escape” from the recent election that he suggested showed a desire for “stability” and a rejection of the Islamists.