In what’s believed to be its first military mission in three years, Qatar’s Emiri Air Force took to the skies above Syria this week alongside military planes from the US and four Arab nations as part of an aerial campaign against ISIL.
While Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE all announced that they had participated in the air strikes, Qatar has made no official mention of its involvement. The US Department of Defense said Qatar played “a supporting role.”
Media reports said Qatar was the only participating Arab country that did not partake in the actual bombing effort. Instead, four Qatari planes provided surveillance as the other Arab nations bombed ISIL targets, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani did not discuss the aerial campaign directly.
But he did call on the Security Council to protect the Syrian people from “the terrorist forces that took advantage of the misery and bitterness and the absence of the state and the international community.”
While urging intensified efforts to fight terrorism, the Emir added that military action alone is unlikely to be a solution: “It has been proven beyond doubt, that terrorism can only be defeated in its social environment.”
Relations between Qatar and the other Gulf states that joined this week’s mission have been at historic lows this year due to a dispute over Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
But according to some Middle East analysts, Western diplomats have urged GCC states to resolve their differences and collectively confront the dangers posed by armed groups in the region.
“There has been a lot of pressure by the US on the Gulf nations to come together and address the threat posed by ISIL,” David Roberts, a lecturer at King’s College London, told Doha News.
Given the seriousness of the situation, Roberts said it would have been difficult for Qatar to avoid playing a role in this week’s assaults. Furthermore, he added, the joint action is a way for the Gulf states to demonstrate their combined strength.
“From Qatar’s perspective, the collective actions enable the argument that things are getting better and that the Gulf can act cohesively,” Roberts said.
US Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted the Gulf’s show of unity in an interview with CNN yesterday:
“Historically, to many people’s amazement, they all came together … They are committed to this because (ISIL is) a threat to every nation, and they see that.”
While the Gulf states have come together to participate in the air strikes, Roberts notes that the list of targets that can be attacked from the air will quickly thin out.
That raises questions around the durability of the newly formed military coalition, and whether a regional political solution can be reached to resolve the threats posed by ISIL.
The US government said this week’s air strikes focused on ISIL and the Khorasan Group, an organization affiliated with al Qaeda.
The initial attack came in three waves, starting with more than 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from US warships in the Gulf and the Red Sea at Khorasan Group compounds, manufacturing workshops and training camps in northern and eastern Syria.
That was followed by US and Arab planes bombing ISIL headquarters, training camps barracks and combat vehicles. The Arab states played their largest role in the third wave, which targeted ISIL training camps and combat vehicles in east Syria.
Qatar’s fighter jet fleet effectively consists of 12 French-made Mirage 2000 planes, which Roberts said date back to the late ’90s and have been modified several times in the intervening years.
The country is currently looking to buy 72 new combat aircraft.
Enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011 is believed to have been the Qatar air force’s last combat mission. Qatar sent six Mirage jets and was reportedly the first Arab nation to participate in the NATO mission.
Writing in Foreign Affairs in 2011, Roberts argued that Qatar likely intervened to be “at the forefront of popular Arab opinion and (defend) fellow Arabs against an onslaught,” as well as gain influence among Libyan rebels and their Western allies following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.