SOUDA BAY AIR BASE, Greece (AP) — In Libya’s skies, Qatar is punching above its weight.
From an air base in Crete, the tiny Persian Gulf nation has started its biggest, farthest combat deployment — including a third of its fighter-jet fleet — and given the first Arab face to the Western-led coalition hoping to protect Libyan civilians from Moammar Gadhafi’s firepower.
For the oil- and gas-rich country that brought the world Al-Jazeera TV and recently won the right to host the 2022 World Cup, the effort marks Qatar’s latest push onto the world stage.
Punishing air strikes by dozens of coalition aircraft have altered Libya’s combat landscape in recent days, allowing the rebel forces to push Monday toward Gadhafi’s hometown, Sirte, and along the way to the capital, Tripoli.
“We felt it was important for an Arab country to join and because other Arab countries were not involved militarily, we felt we should,” Gen. Mubarak al-Khayanin, the Qatari Air Force chief of staff, said in an interview Sunday at Souda.
“We are physically small country, but with leadership comes responsibility,” he said. “Certain countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt haven’t taken leadership for the last three years. So we wanted to step up and express ourselves, and see if others will follow.”
The 22-member Arab League was a driving force behind the U.N. Security Council decision to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. But among members, only Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — which has offered 12 planes to the effort — have committed muscle to enforce the motion.
While Libya and many other Arab countries are facing upheaval in the streets as people demand greater democracy and freedom, Qatar’s joining the no-fly campaign amounts to a visible show of self-confidence.
Since Friday, the start of their participation, Qatari Mirage jets have flown wing-to-wing with the French in four-plane patrols over northeastern Libya, an area controlled by the rebels. Military commanders said the zone was selected for its relative proximity to Crete, and their jets have tallied no strikes or air combat — so far.
The French government, a key proponent of action against Gadhafi’s forces, is eager to highlight Qatar’s participation to stress that it’s not a Western-only intervention. Associated Press journalists accompanied the heads of the Qatari and French air forces and other military officials aboard a French state-owned business jet Sunday for a visit to the joint operation on the Mediterranean base at Souda.
“This is really an exceptional event, a turning point in history,” said Gen. Jean-Paul Palomeros, the French Air Force chief of staff. “It really shows the courage (of Qatar) to enlist at our sides.”
The decisions by Qatar and UAE to join the coalition in Libya reflect their strong traditional ties to the United States and their desires to play a more active role internationally.
“The Gulf countries are beginning … to be more assertive and pursue their own policies,” said Theodore Karasik of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai. “They feel they can go out more on their own, diversify their interests, but still keep their Western allies.”
The Gulf states rely on a strong regional U.S. military presence as a buffer against Iran, which is seen as a threat by the Gulf’s kings and sheiks. Western nations are also key trading partners.
Shadi Hamid, director of research at The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, said joining the Libya coalition is a way for Qatar and the UAE to bank some goodwill with the West.
“The U.S., Britain, and France are going to remember who supported them in this operation, and who helped them build a broader and more robust coalition” — especially those who contributed military might, Hamid said.
It doesn’t hurt that the two Arab nations are the region’s richest per capita.
“So the question is: ‘Why not spend tens of millions of dollars supporting the operations, and we get something out of it too?’ It’s a more obvious choice for countries that can afford it,” Hamid said.
The UAE agreed to join in the Libyan effort last week — reversing an earlier decision to limit its role to humanitarian aid — and plans now to commit six F-16 and six Mirage aircraft to enforcing the no-fly zone.
Earlier this month, Emirati forces took part in a different kind of operation: They joined Saudi troops for a Gulf-led mission to bolster forces loyal to Bahrain’s rulers amid the anti-government protests there.
Qatar, which juts into the Persian Gulf like a thumb off the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula, has only 1.7 million people — mostly temporary foreign workers. Yet it recently emerged the unlikely winner to host the 2022 World Cup.
Qatar’s rulers bankrolled the launch of Al Jazeera, arguably the Arab world’s most influential news channel and a lightning rod for criticism from the region’s autocrats. The network covered the recent Arab uprisings earlier and more extensively than Western news channels, and is renewing its push to get the channel’s English-language division onto U.S. cable systems.
Qatar has acted as peace broker in Lebanon and Sudan, and has sent humanitarian aid to both Chile and Haiti after earthquakes there in 2010. Qatar’s capital, Doha, hosts several branches of American universities and the Middle East headquarters for the U.S. Army’s Central Command.
Karasik said the Libya intervention is yet another example of Qatar’s desire to become “a foreign policy powerhouse.”
“It goes along with their attitude that they are the go-to country for resolving political and strategic questions throughout the … region,” he said.
But Gen. al-Khayanin told the AP that his country’s goal was simpler: “To make sure the Libyan people are not being killed. You cannot go halfway — and we are ready to go as long as it takes.”
“I have nothing against Gadhafi … as long as he protects his own people,” said al-Khayanin. “Removing Gadhafi is an internal issue, but at least the fighting has to stop.”
Qatar has about 200 pilots and crew at Souda. They have been paired with the French partly because the two countries have worked and trained together for years under bilateral defense accords.
Under the escort of Lt. Gen. Antonios Tsantirakis, the commander of Greece’s tactical air force, the French and Qatari commanders toured the quickly assembled operations center in Souda.
One Qatari officer asked for better intelligence information about events on the ground, and his superiors pledged to provide more. The rank-and-file Qatari and French airmen didn’t want their full names used, citing security reasons.
Qatari and Greek fighter planes are scheduled to fly extra training missions over the Mediterranean this week to help Qatari pilots understand the area better.
Shortly after returning from a flight Sunday over Libya, a grizzled Qatari colonel with salt-and-pepper hair was matter-of-fact about Qatar’s role.
“For us, this is a good first experience to come here, so far from our home base,” he said, walking on the Souda tarmac. “For us, it’s not a matter of Libya or Gadhafi, this is to enforce the U.N. no-fly zone. I’m not going to go into the political side of it.”
One young Qatari officer said in English that his country was involved in the Libya campaign, “to save the world.”
One officer who did give his name, 2nd Lt. Naveed Ashraf, a Pakistani technical adviser for the Qatari Air Force, insisted that Islam, the main religion in Qatar and Libya, shouldn’t be part of the equation — but Gadhafi’s onslaught against his own people should be.
“This is not about Muslims possibly killing other Muslims,” Ashraf said. “No religion tolerates this brutality … Nobody has the right to do what he is doing.”