Kerry to defend Syria policy in Mideast visit

Kerry to address allies concerns that providing Syrian rebels with small arms won't be effective in ousting Assad.

June 21, 2013 15:16
4 minute read.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, May 31, 2013.

John Kerry 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)

US Secretary of State John Kerry will confront concerns Saturday from Mideast and European allies that a US plan to send small arms won’t do enough to bolster Syrian rebels battling Bashar Assad’s regime.

The top US diplomat is to meet in Doha, Qatar, with foreign ministers from 10 other countries backing the Syrian opposition. Some, such as Saudi Arabia and France, have pushed to provide greater firepower to rebels who say they need anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.

“The administration has a big challenge,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It’s not clear that a few arms can make much of a difference. I see little evidence to back up that hope.”

Talks on Syria’s civil war, which has killed more than 93,000 people and driven more than 1.5 million refugees into neighboring countries, will be just the start of Kerry’s 11-day trip to seven countries. Efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons are among contentious issues on an itinerary that includes stops in Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and India.

Kerry arrives in Qatar after a flap there this week stole attention from the announcement of plans for talks with the Taliban on a peace agreement in Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai objected when the Taliban opened a Doha office under the name it used when it controlled Afghanistan and initially said his government wouldn’t participate in the negotiations.

The Taliban changed the name of its facility and talks may begin as early as this weekend, starting with a meeting between US and Taliban officials. Kerry won’t be seeing Taliban representatives while in Doha, according to a State Department official who briefed reporters on the secretary’s trip yesterday on condition of anonymity.
Syria Debate

The White House has announced only that the US would expand military aid to the Syrian opposition. While President Barack Obama has authorized providing small arms and ammunition, he’s stopped short of backing air strikes against Assad’s forces, a no-fly zone over Syria or heavier weaponry to battle the regime’s tanks and aircraft, according to a US official familiar with the decision who asked not to be identified discussing the move.

“Everyone knows we’re going to have to do a lot more, and a lot more together, to get rid of Assad,” Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an interview. “The question is how to get there. Everybody is torn, but I think this is going to be an interesting chat.”

Kerry’s tour includes his fifth visit to Israel in as many months in an effort to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks that have been moribund for almost three years amid disputes over the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. During stops in Jerusalem and Amman, Jordan, Kerry is scheduled to meet with Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian Authority officials.

“We’re running out of time,” Kerry said to the American Jewish Committee, a Washington advocacy group, on June 3. “Let’s be clear: If we do not succeed now, and I know I’m raising the stakes, we may not get another chance.”

That provocative comment was probably a mistake, said Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state who is now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington.

“You can say it once, but you can’t say it more than that,” Miller said. “It just makes us seem desperate.”
No ‘Ownership’

The danger of starting U.S.-brokered talks now, Miller said, is that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t yet shown a commitment, or sense of ownership, in the peace process.

“The real problem here is the absence of ownership,” Miller said. “I don’t understand how Kerry can get around that. Rarely have I seen a secretary of state who seems so sure of himself.”

In meeting with Israeli officials, Kerry also is sure to hear concerns that an international coalition against Iran’s nuclear program may weaken after the victory of President-elect Hassan Rohani, a cleric backed by Iranian reformers, said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“For Israel and neighboring Persian Gulf countries, a Rohani presidency is the equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig,” Sadjadpour said. “They worry that Iran’s nuclear ambitions will remain unchanged, but under a more moderate leadership the international sanctions regime could unravel.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “is extremely suspicious and worried that a diplomatic outcome will allow the Iranians to sneak a bomb through the back door,” according to Miller, who said Kerry will “want to retain a certain amount of independence from the Israeli view on this.”

Kerry also is scheduled to visit India, Kuwait and Brunei.

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