NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Qatar's Libya Role: 'A Logical Next Step'

Qatari Air Force Mirage 2000 jet fighters prepare to takeoff for a mission to Libya at the  military airbase base of Souda on the Greek island of Crete on March 30.
Petros Giannakouris
Qatari Air Force Mirage 2000 jet fighters prepare to takeoff for a mission to Libya at the military airbase base of Souda on the Greek island of Crete on March 30.

The tiny but influential Arab nation of Qatar was the first Arab state to join the allied effort to stop the bloodshed in Libya. A third of its fighter-jet fleet is now on the Souda air base on the Greek island of Crete. The Qataris, working alongside the French, are helping enforce the NATO-led no-fly zone over Libya.

Two Mirage 2000 jets — one Qatari, one French — rev their engines. The pilots turn the sleek planes onto a runway on this craggy stretch of northwestern Crete.

About 20 Qatari men in desert-hued camouflage watch from a shady spot near the runway.

There's a white plastic table with a cup of cardamom-scented coffee. A Qatari mechanic rolls out a rug for midday prayers. The Qatari and French flags are raised near the runway.

Air force contingents from the two countries arrived here late last month, four French and six Qatari. The fighters always fly in pairs, one from each country.

Col. Antoine Guillou, the French commander, watches as the Mirages take off. He's usually based in Doha and trains Qatari fighter pilots to fly the French-built jets. He says the French are used to these missions, the Qataris less so.

"It's a little bit harder for the Qatarian side because the gap is wider, in fact," he says. "But really, together we achieve to fill it, and now they are really absolutely perfect in their job."

The Qatari Air Force did not allow the officers stationed in Crete to talk to NPR. But privately, the officers say they know they're focused on a mission that's important to Qatar's ruler.

"There was clearly a humanitarian catastrophe evolving in Libya," says David Roberts, who is with the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank in Qatar that studies defense and security issues in the Middle East. "No one else in the Arab world would do anything, and Qatar said, "chalas, as they say in this part of the world, Enough!

"It's time for us to do something."

It seems like an outsized mission for a country roughly the size of Connecticut. Only 1.7 million people live in Qatar, many are temporary foreign workers. But the country is rich with natural gas reserves and also owns Al Jazeera, the most influential news channel in the Arab world.

Blake Hounshell, the managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine who lives in the Qatari capital, Doha, says the Qataris have been a major supplier of humanitarian aid to rebel-held areas during the conflict in Libya.

"Actually, in the Qatari constitution, it says that Qatar's foreign policy should be driven by peacefully resolving disputes in the Middle East," he says. "So, this Libya intervention is kind of a logical next step for them."

The few Libyans who live in Greece say they are pleased the

Qataris are flying missions over Libya.

One man who gives his name as Khaled says he trusts the Qataris because Al Jazeera has given the world stories of what's really happening in Libya. He won't give his real name because he says he's frightened for his family back in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

"The Qatari people have shown support basically because they've seen all the killing, all the murders that have been happening at the beginning," he says. "So they lived with us through those dangers."

So far only two other Arab states — the United Arab Emirates and Jordan — have joined Qatar in sending aircraft to take part in international operations over Libya.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.