CAIRO — Twice in the last seven days, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have secretly launched airstrikes against Islamist-allied militias battling for control of Tripoli, Libya, four senior U.S. officials said, in a major escalation of a regional power struggle set off by Arab Spring revolts.
The United States, the officials said, was caught by surprise: Egypt and the Emirates, both close allies and military partners, acted without informing the U.S., leaving the Obama administration on the sidelines. Egyptian officials explicitly denied to U.S. diplomats that their military played any role in the operation, the officials said, in what appeared a new blow to already strained relations between leaders in Washington and Cairo.
The strikes in Tripoli are another salvo in a power struggle defined by old-style Arab autocrats battling Islamist movements seeking to overturn the old order. Since the military ouster of the Islamist president in Egypt last year, the new government and its backers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have launched a campaign across the region to roll back what they see as an existential threat to their authority posed by Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Arrayed against them and backing the Islamists are the rival states of Turkey and Qatar.
Several officials said in recent days that U.S. diplomats were fuming about the airstrikes, believing the intervention could further inflame the Libyan conflict as the United Nations and Western powers are seeking to broker a peaceful resolution.
Officials said the government of Qatar has already provided weapons and support to the Islamist-aligned forces inside Libya, so the new strikes represent a shift from a battle of proxies to direct involvement. It could also set off an arms race.
“We don’t see this as constructive at all,” said one senior U.S. official.
The UAE was once considered a sidekick to Saudi Arabia, a regional heavyweight and the dominant power among the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf. The Saudi rulers, who draw their own legitimacy from a puritanical understanding of Islam, have long feared the threat of other religious political movements, especially the well-organized and widespread Muslim Brotherhood.
The issue has caused a rare schism among the Arab monarchies of the Gulf because Qatar has taken the opposite tack. In contrast to its neighbors, it has welcomed Islamist expatriates to its capital, Doha, and supported their factions around the region, including in Libya.