Punching Above Its Weight

Could tiny Qatar send ground forces to Libya?

In recent years, Qatar has become something of a mecca for international conferences, attracting a wide and diverse variety of global events to the small Arab state. It is therefore not surprising to see that this week, shortly before both the Pipeline Integrity Management Forum and the Underground Infrastructure and Deep Foundations Conference, the Libya contact group -- the gaggle of countries and international entities set up to provide "political direction" for the war effort -- will meet in Doha to discuss the evolving confrontation.

The only surprising thing about Qatar hosting this event is that it does so as one of the key protagonists in the conflict with Libya. Qatar has been unusually vocal for an Arab country of late, eschewing the typically conservative foreign policies of Gulf states. For example, after the international opprobrium died down in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, which forced Qatar to cut its ties to Israel, it has since tried to re-establish relations with the country, only to be rebuffed. Yet no one expected Qatar to send what probably amounts to the majority of its operational Air Force fighter wing -- four French-made Mirage jets -- to join in maintaining the no-fly zone over Libya.

So what on Earth is a tiny country the size of Connecticut doing waging war on a much bigger fellow Arab state thousands of miles away? Has Qatar gone crazy?

Hardly. In the minds of Doha's worldly leadership, Qatar's intervention makes perfect sense, for three broad reasons.

First, Qatar loves the limelight. Many of its policies over the past decade have been specifically designed to thrust the little-known country onto the international stage to publicize not only Qatar in and of itself, but a particular modern, business-savvy, and erudite brand thereof. The 1990 invasion of Kuwait (another small, rich country surrounded by far larger states) likely convinced Qatar that anonymity is not a desirable quality in the event of such a catastrophe. Any number of subsequent policies -- from funding Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite channel, to mediating in Lebanon to winning the 2022 World Cup hosting rights -- can be seen through this lens as promoting brand Qatar™.

Before the United Arab Emirates was, as some believe, pressured into deploying a section of its Air Force, Qatar was the sole literal and physical embodiment of tangible Arab support for the Libyan rebels. The Qatari emir drew genuflecting praise from the French, a nod from the British, and a warm thank-you call from U.S. President Barack Obama. Being owed a favor by some of the world's most powerful states is a good position to be in. As Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, Qatar's dual-hatted foreign minister and prime minister, noted when a U.S. dignitary thanked him for Qatar's $100 million gift in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, "We [Qatar] might have our own Katrina [one day]."

Second, and as unfashionable as it may be to say so, there are genuine humanitarian concerns afoot. The elite in Doha, through a smorgasbord of munificent and enlightened policies, such as the "Reach Out to Asia" program and various conflict-management gambits from Yemen to Sudan to the Levant, genuinely appear to try to imbue Qatar's national policies with an element of humanitarianism, often under the mantra that Arabs should solve Arab problems.

We can't dismiss a certain element of realpolitik in some of these initiatives, yet one must not forget that Qatar is institutionally set up to allow personal directives from the elite to come to fruition. Were Obama or his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to try to adopt a similarly risky and surprising foreign policy, it would be institutionally emasculated by the State Department, stripping out risk under the pragmatist rubric of strict self-interest and a bureaucratic aversion to change. This is not to mention serious and abiding domestic, political, economic, and military constraints.

Yet the same does not apply in Qatar to anything like the same degree. When decisions are made at the highest levels, they are resolutely not questioned or altered as they are carried out. Moreover, not only is Qatar militarily secured by the presence of U.S. forces at the enormous al-Udeid Air Base and Camp as-Sayliyah south of Doha, leaving its forces available for such missions, but Qatar's financial largesse and its relatively apolitical population do not present significant obstacles to foreign adventures. The Qatari elite, therefore, find themselves in the somewhat unique position of being able to turn personal conviction into policy.

Third and crucially, on this occasion a number of unusual international factors coalesced, including Western and -- most importantly -- Arab support for action. The Arab League's call for a no-fly zone effectively allowed Qatar to send its Mirage jets. Without this explicit political cover, had Qatar intervened unilaterally, breaking one of the key tenets of international relations -- noninterference in the domestic affairs of other states -- it would have been deeply isolated and unpopular at a governmental level.

Given that no one thought it remotely likely Qatar would win the right to host the 2022 World Cup or that the country would contribute militarily to the Libya intervention, one must ask: What's next? What will Qatar do now that seems highly unlikely if not impossible, that breaks regional taboos and traditional conservative tendencies? How about: sending in ground forces?

While the notion of the 8,500-man Qatari army charging into Libya is a leap too far, the use of a smaller detachment or Qatar's elite special-operations forces in a more limited manner is more of a possibility. By either training the rebels in situ, operating with a limited "civilian protection" mandate, or securing the oil fields in the south and east, the oil from which Qatar is already marketing for the rebels, Qatar would further establish itself as a leader in the Arab world. Indeed, Qatar clearly thinks that such a role is currently vacant. Gen. Mubarak al-Khayanin, the Qatari Air Force chief of staff, recently noted that traditional leaders of the region "like Saudi Arabia and Egypt haven't taken leadership for the last three years" -- a comment that no doubt raised a few eyebrows in Riyadh.

The risks involved in such a deployment would be huge, not only in terms of the unprecedented notion of body bags returning to Doha or the difficulties of planning such an operation amid the highly fluid situation on the ground in Libya, but also in terms of how the likely reaction of traditional regional powers to yet another example of Qatar seeking to "rise above its station" could severely complicate intraregional relations.

Still, Qatar is by now used to taking these kinds of risks. And Qatar's elite are certainly not afraid to enter intractable conflicts with no clear exit strategy; witness Qatar's repeated mediation efforts in Yemen and Sudan and around the Horn of Africa. The unique blend of attributes that Qatar possesses -- a small population, huge natural gas reserves, a hard-power military guarantee from Uncle Sam, and an enlightened, relatively young leadership -- means that it is unusually isolated from the traditional torpor and caution that characterizes the rule of many Arab countries. Given a conducive international atmosphere, using its military forces in Libya or elsewhere in a humanitarian context would be -- while unusual, risky, and bold -- just another potential boost for the brand.

Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images


Who's Really in the Yemeni Opposition, Anyway?

And, more importantly, will they stay together once Ali Abdullah Saleh steps down?

Divide and conquer. That's the strategy Ali Abdullah Saleh has employed for 33 years to remain atop Yemen's extremely diverse political landscape. But the Yemeni president's efforts to keep his country in a state of low-level dysfunction are also at the root of its current problems. Chaos allows Saleh to make politics a family affair, keeping the reins of power in the hands of his sons and nephews.

And yet the old ways don't seem to work anymore, as the recent war against separatists in the north and the massive civil disobedience movement for secession in the south had already suggested, even before hundreds of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets to demand Saleh's ouster. Now, with the recent bloodshed, the defection of his most important military commander, and the revelation that the United States and the Gulf Arab states are actively seeking Saleh's peaceful exit from power, it's clear the president has pushed this strategy too far. Rather than dividing the opposition, Saleh has managed to unite it against him.

We can never count Saleh out, but the tipping point may have been reached with the April 4 killing of at least 12 protesters in Taiz, the capital of the cosmopolitan "middle regions" of Yemen, by Saleh's security forces. Just as he seemed to be regaining political ground, the spilling of more innocent blood left many with the impression that the president has lost control. The opposition -- which consists of traditional opposition parties under the banner of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), street protesters, a big chunk of the military under Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the northern Houthi movement, and the southern movement, called the "Hirak" -- responded with massive demonstrations. More significantly, the regime's foreign backers decided that Saleh needed to step aside immediately -- and not, as Washington had hoped, after a negotiated period of several months.

Some would say the United States waited too long. For years, Washington supported Saleh because he was willing to cooperate with its counterterrorism strategy, and out of fear of chaos following the president's departure. Arguably, however, the threat to national unity posed by Saleh's continued rule is perhaps graver. Saleh has been trying to split the opposition by holding negotiations with the religious wing (as opposed to the tribal wing) of the opposition Islah party.

In doing so, he has attempted to rekindle the alliance that led to Yemen's 1994 civil war, which pitted traditionalists and certain Islamic political groups against the largely socialist leadership of the south. Saleh rallied similar groups against the northern Houthi movement, a rebellion led by a prominent Zaidi clan, in 2004. The wily Saleh knows well that this tactic may fracture the opposition by arousing the suspicions of both the southern movement -- the main victim of the 1994 war -- and the Houthis, who only recently were fighting Islah.

With Saleh knocked back on his heels, Yemen's immediate future now depends on the opposition's ability to remain united while engaging in serious political negotiation -- no easy task, given its past. The day before the Taiz killings, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, a Houthi leader, warned that time was on Saleh's side. The negotiations and many proposals for reforms, transitional governments, and power sharing between the JMP and the government, he said, had allowed the president to exploit divisions in the opposition. Sure enough, Tawakul Karman, one of the protest movement's most dynamic activists, has forcefully criticized the JMP's latest proposal, which sketches out a transition in which Saleh hands over power to his vice president, a national unity government headed by the opposition is created, and the security forces are restructured under a "transitional military council."

But, as Karman pointed out, the proposal did not take into consideration the views of the southern movement, the Houthis, or the street demonstrators -- precisely the groups the JMP needs in order to successfully challenge Saleh. The Houthis' military victory in the north and the sustained widespread civil disobedience movement in the south had reduced the JMP to parliamentary games with little relevance on the street. In turn, the street protesters -- mostly the unemployed, some tribesmen, and university students -- rejected the JMP. And the street has shown that it cannot be ignored: In early March, when the JMP first accepted Saleh's proposal to negotiate a solution, protests forced the JMP to back out of the negotiations. The JMP has now built relationships with the Houthi, the southern secessionists, and to some extent the street protesters that have enabled the party to present a powerful front against the president, but one that is very dependent on its new partners. Without them, it is little more than an appendage of the regime.

Yet Yemen's diverse politics are not necessarily a liability. Perhaps the salient achievement of the street demonstrations is that they have brought together groups that until recently were killing one another -- or at least refusing to talk -- in solidarity against Saleh's regime. Each group knows that it cannot rule alone and that its political and economic interests would be hurt by a complete collapse of the central state. The local autonomy of the Houthi north, as well as to some extent that of the southerners, is now a political fact. The next step is to maintain and institutionalize the dialogue and coordination that has emerged out of the opposition movement and strike some sort of balance between regional autonomy and a central state.

Yemen's future depends on it. The opposition alliance has already reaped significant gains: The power of the street demonstrations has helped consolidate the Houthis' participation in the national political dialogue and induced the southern movement to drop at least temporarily its demand for secession.

Saleh's proposals for a political solution to the current crisis are not unreasonable. He has called for a peaceful transfer of power based on respect of the rule of law and the Yemeni Constitution. He has voiced his support for an opposition government, a new constitution, a parliamentary system, a new election committee, and a transitional period before new elections. The blood in Taiz, however, has damaged the president's credibility. Opposition leaders fear he is using these proposals to buy time, which he hopes to use to divide the fragile opposition. In response, they are demanding guarantees of real and lasting political change.

Much now depends on the post-Taiz negotiations, which are ongoing in various forms, as well the skill of the Yemeni opposition. The U.S. ambassador in Sanaa, the European Union, and now the Saudis have joined forces to mediate between the president and the opposition. These international actors must be wary of the temptation to anoint another strongman. Although a narrow government might look strong in the short run, it will be weak in the long run.

Early elections will be critical for regaining political stability. All of Yemen's various political actors are wary of one other, but all agree that elections are a legitimate means of distributing power. And all agree on one thing: Saleh can't be trusted to preside over a transition fairly.

Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images