Arab League approves no-fly zone in Libya. But is it too late?

The US and UK expressed support for the Arab League's approval of a no-fly zone as Libyan rebels beat a hasty eastward retreat from forces loyal to Col. Muammar Qaddafi.

By , Correspondent

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    Arab League chief Amr Moussa (l.), Oman's Foreign Minister Yousuf bin Alawi (c.) and the Arab League's undersecretary general Ahmed bin Helli attend the Arab League emergency meeting in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday. The Arab League approved a no-fly zone in Libya at a closed emergency meeting in Cairo, Saturday.
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The United States and United Kingdom expressed their approval of the Arab League's call Saturday for a United Nations no-fly zone over Libya. But despite the League's request, it remains unclear how effective a no-fly zone over Libya might be as Libyan rebels continue to lose key cities and towns to Col. Muammar Qadaffi's forces.

Agence France-Presse reports that Libyan rebels fled the oil town of Brega Sunday, as Colonel Qadaffi's forces continued to advance toward the rebel-held city of Benghazi in the east. AFP notes that the rebels' morale had been bolstered by the Arab League's call for a no-fly zone, which came before the retreat from Brega. (See map.)

The White House called the League's request an "important step" in dealing with the Libyan crisis, reports Reuters.

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"The international community is unified in sending a clear message that the violence in Libya must stop, and that the Qaddafi regime must be held accountable," the administration said in a statement.

Britain also welcomed the League's statement.

Reuters writes that British Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC television that "We've said all along that one of the conditions for a no-fly zone must be broad support in the region."

"Clearly this is one indicator that there is broad support in that region," he said. "It's not the only condition. It's also necessary to have even broader international support and it's also necessary for it to be clearly legal."

Reuters notes that it is still unclear how Russia and China will respond to the Arab League's request. Both countries hold seats on the UN Security Council and are traditionally loath to involve themselves in what they consider other nations' domestic issues.

The Christian Science Monitor reported Friday that both Britain and France have been pushing for EU support of a no-fly zone, though they have been meeting resistance from those worried about increasing the risk to Libyan civilians and getting entangled in an ongoing conflict in North Africa and the Middle East.

The decision by the Arab League to come out in favor of a no-fly zone may shift global opinion, as the request is a major departure from the League's long history of rejecting foreign intervention in Arab affairs. Al Jazeera English reports that Youssef bin Alawi bin Abdullah, Oman's foreign minister and the chair of the Saturday meeting at which the decision was reached, said all members of the League were in support of the decision.

Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, said that the no-fly zone was needed to protect Libya's people, though he added that he did not know "how nor who [would] impose this zone, that remains to be seen." He also said that the no-fly zone would have to end immediately upon resolution of the crisis in Libya. The Arab League noted that it did not support any "foreign military" intervention in Libya, which is a member of the League, though currently suspended due to its actions against its people.

But even with the Arab League's support, it is unclear whether a no-fly zone will be of help to Libyan rebels. The Wall Street Journal reports that while Abdel Hafeez Goga of the Benghazi-based rebel government said that his people "welcome and salute [the League's] decision and look at it as a step forward to the imposition of no-fly-zone imposition," Qaddafi's forces were ousting the rebels from the cities of Ras Lanuf and Zawiya. And the fall of Brega Sunday only underscores the urgency of the rebels' need for support.

Further, the efficacy and ease of a no-fly zone remains a subject of debate. The Washington Post writes that while Qaddafi has used some air power, "[m]uch of the fighting is being done by ground forces, including tank-fired artillery...." And US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned last week that a US-enforced no-fly zone would require serious military effort, reported The Christian Science Monitor. "There’s a lot of, frankly, loose talk about some of these military options. Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone."

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