Who's rethinking support for Libya's no-fly zone – and why

After a few days of Western airstrikes on Libya, initial international support is beginning to fall apart as disputes arise about what levels of military action are authorized by Thursday's UN resolution.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP
Libyan rebels patrol the center of Benghazi, eastern Libya, Sunday. A senior Pentagon official says US and allied attacks in Libya have been very effective in degrading the government's ability to threaten planes enforcing a no-fly zone over the North African country.

The initial relief that followed Thursday's passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 – which authorizes a no-fly zone and “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians – has given way to criticism of its execution.

The resolution had broad international support when it passed 10-0 with 5 abstentions. But now, as questions arise over what a no-fly zone actually entails and what “all necessary measures” means – the dangers of which US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tried to warn others about before the UN resolution – some of that support is falling off.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said Sunday that the airstrikes on Libya may have gone beyond their intended scope and were possibly endangering Libyan civilians further. Mr. Moussa’s statement shook Western powers, who did not want to be perceived as intervening in the Arab world without its support. (It’s unlikely that the US or European countries would have voted in favor of the UN resolution had the Arab League not endorsed a no-fly zone the previous week.)

However, on Monday Moussa held a press conference with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to reiterate the Arab League’s support for the resolution. According to Moussa, Arab League support will continue as long as the UN-authorized actions do not include any plans for foreign invasion or occupation of Libya, and as long as its stated goal remains the protection of civilians.

“The protection of civilians will remain the issue that we all, the Arab League and Security Council, agree on,” he said in the press conference.

The Arab League is in a tough spot, The Guardian reported. It wants to see Qaddafi gone – having dealt with his erratic behavior firsthand for years – but does not want to be perceived as calling on Western powers to take action on its behalf, for fear of retribution at the hands of Qaddafi operatives throughout the Arab world.

President Obama's reluctance to send in his air force and navy until the Arab League had taken a diplomatic lead leaves the body in the position of having sanctioned a US-led attack on a member state – a tough stance to adopt, with the wounds of Iraq still healing.

And while Russia’s abstention in the Security Council vote on the resolution may not seem very supportive, it was a token of support that the country wouldn't have given in the past. “The former Soviet Union would have vetoed it in a heartbeat,” the Monitor noted. But even that modicum of support seems to be eroding.

Although Russian President Dmitry Medvedev still stands behind the Western strikes, on Monday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called the UN resolution “defective and flawed” and compared it to “medieval calls for crusade,” the Monitor reported. And CNN reports that on Tuesday, in a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Bill Gates in Moscow, Russian defense secretary Anatoly Serdyukov called for an immediate cease-fire from both sides.

Calls for a cease-fire also came from South African President Jacob Zuma, who said that a no-fly zone was “just that," according to South African newspaper The Times.

"As South Africa, we say no to the killing of civilians, no to the regime change doctrine, and no to the foreign occupation of Libya – or any other sovereign state," President Zuma said in a speech Monday.

The African Union, which counts both Libya and South Africa as members, has also come out against the intervention, The Telegraph reports. However, an AU mediation team to Libya that included Zuma was denied entry to the country Sunday, presumably out of anger over South Africa's vote in favor of the resolution last week.

Other African leaders, such as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, have strongly criticized the UN resolution.

Meanwhile, NATO members are butting heads over the question of whether to involve NATO in the operations in Libya and, if so, to what degree, Reuters reports.

Italy is pushing for NATO command of the operations, arguing that it should either have no role at all or should be in charge, and has threatened to stop allowing Western forces to use its air fields if NATO is not brought in.

France and Turkey, however, are resisting Italy's call.

France insists that even if NATO forces are used, the operation in Libya should not be under NATO command because doing so would undermine broad support for the UN resolution. Turkey has not expressed clear support for NATO involvement, let alone NATO command of the operation, and on Monday Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that air strikes have already gone beyond that was allowed in the UN resolution.

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