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UAE strikes on Libya stir US fears of a free-for-all in the Middle East

The region’s US-armed powers could stage their own interventions as Washington steps back from decades of war

The U.S. was reportedly caught off guard last week by a mysterious set of airstrikes in Libya, which senior White House officials told The New York Times were carried out by the United Arab Emirates with support from Egypt. The report, denied by both countries, has sparked concerns that transnational military action without Washington’s endorsement by two of the region’s U.S.-armed powers portends a new era of free-for-all military intervention in the Middle East amid waning U.S. influence.

Since providing limited support to the air campaign that helped topple ex-dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Barack Obama’s administration has been reluctant to do its allies’ bidding in Libya — a messy conflict whose outcome is seen in Washington as of limited consequence for U.S. interests. But some U.S. allies are more deeply invested, seeing the power struggle among Libya’s rival militias as an extension of their regional effort to exterminate the Muslim Brotherhood and its backers.

That narrative frame would align with last week’s mysterious bombing raids in Tripoli, which targeted Islamist-aligned militiamen fighting for control of what remains of the Libyan capital’s international airport. If the allegations regarding the airstrikes are true, wrote The Guardian, “the move could turn Libya into a proxy war between the country’s elected government, backed by UAE and Egypt, and Islamists backed by Qatar.”

The roots of this nascent power struggle lie in the Arab Spring uprisings and their aftermath. Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated parties were the big winners in the elections that followed the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and President Zine El Abidene Ben Ali in Tunisia, prompting Saudi Arabia and the UAE to brand the pan-Arab Islamist group a mortal threat. Those countries were quick to support the military-led government installed after the coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi — a Brotherhood leader — last summer, and they have accused Turkey and Qatar of supporting a movement they say threatens their security interests.

Despite the temptation to see the Tripoli strikes as part of a new drive to escalate the regional proxy war and sideline the U.S., analysts caution that even if the strikes were carried out by the UAE, for now they appear to be an isolated event rather than part of a coherent campaign with a clearly defined goal. The very fact that nobody has claimed responsibility for the F-16 air raids underscores the trepidation of their authors about assuming a more assertive military stance in the region, said Gary Sick, a former National Security Council official and senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute.

“This should be regarded as a sort of exploratory step,” he said. “The question is whether this is something that paid off enough to justify doing it again.”

By that measure, the strike’s authors may already be discouraged. The U.S. officials briefing the Times said the airstrikes were counterproductive; the groups targeted succeeded in taking control of the airport soon after the strikes. “We don’t see this as constructive at all,” one U.S. official told the Times.

But Washington’s concerns are unlikely to sway local powers, both because of their frustration with the Obama administration’s reluctance to intervene in Syria and because of the United States’ recent track record of unilateral military action in the Middle East.

The widely condemned 2003 invasion of Iraq set a precedent for ignoring international law, said Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and past president of the Middle East Policy Council. That has opened the door for regional powers to follow suit, regardless of U.S. preferences. Washington’s foremost regional ally, Israel, has frequently resorted to military strikes in Gaza over the past decade and has long warned that it reserves the right to unilaterally decide whether to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.

“Gulf states and Egypt have seen many instances of Israel doing whatever it wants without us,” Freeman said. “They’re saying, if Israel can use U.S. weapons to defy the U.S. and pursue its own foreign policy objectives, why can’t they?”

The inclination toward unilateral action is reinforced by concerns over the perception in Arab capitals that the U.S. is retrenching in the region, downgrading the strategic centrality of the Middle East in favor of a pivot to Asia and appearing reluctant to project military power abroad.

Washington has been reluctant to intervene in Syria until now, despite the urging of its Gulf allies to arm friendly rebel forces, or to get involved in trying to shape the outcome of Libya’s civil war. Those allies were also harshly critical of the Obama administration for failing to support Mubarak against the popular rebellion that forced his ouster.

As longtime beneficiaries of the U.S.-led security order in the region, some of those Arab powers are understandably anxious.

“For seven decades, the United States safeguarded a global framework, which — however imperfect, and regardless of how many mistakes the superpower made — generally guaranteed a minimum level of stability,” wrote former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer for Project Syndicate this week. “At the very least, Pax Americana was an essential component of Western security. But the U.S. is no longer willing or able to be the world’s policeman.”

Sick, however, warns against premature alarmism. Despite talk of retrenchment, the U.S. recently began a military campaign against the Islamic State insurgency in Iraq that could soon broaden into Syria as well. That suggests a continued willingness to act, albeit in a manner different from a decade ago. “They were accustomed to the idea that the U.S. would intervene left and right,” he said. “It’s a change in policy, but it really isn’t a retrenchment.”

Washington’s disapproval of the Tripoli airstrike is to be expected, in part because the U.S. is almost inevitably called on as the enforcer of last resort when things go awry. If nothing else, Freeman said, “what this says is that the U.S. can no longer take followership [by its regional allies] for granted.”

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