As Libyan Rebels Lose Ground, Arab League’s Call for ‘No-Fly’ Zone Adds to Pressure on U.S.

By Patrick Goodenough | March 14, 2011 | 5:52 AM EDT

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, makes a victory sign as he speaks in Tripoli about government forces seizing the eastern half of the country from the rebels, now in retreat. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

( – A call by the Arab League for the international community to enforce a “no-fly” zone in Libya will add to the pressure on already divided major powers this week. The Arab call comes as anti-government rebels continue to retreat under fire -- their revolt looking headed for defeat.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet with fellow G8 foreign ministers Monday in Paris for talks likely to be dominated by both the North African crisis and the Japanese earthquake disaster.

She also is due to meet with unnamed representatives of the Libyan rebellion, which in recent days has been losing territory steadily to Muammar Gaddafi’s advancing forces.

Last week’s back-to-back meetings in Brussels of NATO defense ministers and European Union (E.U.) leaders revealed deep differences over what steps, if any, should be taken to help the rebels fighting to end Gaddafi’s four-decade rule.

France and Britain are pushing for a no-fly zone while Germany, Turkey and others are leery. The Obama administration also has voiced reluctance, and it is allowing the E.U. to take the lead, while also stressing the need for any action to be endorsed by the United Nations.

The Arab League’s weekend decision calling on the U.N. Security Council to establish a no-fly zone over Libya was an unprecedented departure for the 22-country bloc which has jealously guarded members’ sovereignty and rejected outside intervention.

Although the decision reached after five hours of discussion was not unanimous – Syria, Algeria and Mauritania demurred – it did appear to meet one of three conditions put forward in Brussels on Thursday for NATO to act – strong regional backing. The Arab League appeal follows earlier ones by the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council and the head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

The other two criteria stipulated by NATO were “demonstrable need” and a legal basis. France and Britain are pushing a resolution at the Security Council to cover the latter requirement, although China and Russia, both veto-wielding permanent members, have voiced objections.

White House press secretary Jay Carney welcomed the Arab decision, saying it “strengthens the international pressure on Gaddafi and support for the Libyan people.”

“The United States will continue to advance our efforts to pressure Gaddafi, to support the Libyan opposition, and to prepare for all contingencies, in close coordination with our international partners,” he said in a prepared statement.

The administration did not explicitly endorse the no-fly zone proposal, however, although Clinton said late last week that NATO will consider a report Tuesday on “the full range of possible options, including a no-fly zone.”

In the resolution passed by the Arab League calling for the step to be taken the Arab states did not themselves express a readiness to participate in enforcing the no-fly zone.

The text, which described Gaddafi’s government as “illegitimate,” also voiced support for a provisional rebel council in Libya. It called on member states to provide urgent humanitarian aid for Libyans in need and to help evacuate Arab citizens who want to leave the war-torn country.

In recent days Gaddafi’s forces have regained full control of Zawiya, a town around 30 miles west of the capital, Tripoli, and have been moving eastwards in the direction of the main rebel stronghold, Benghazi, capturing in turn the coastal towns of Bin Jawad, Ras Lanuf and Brega.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow