U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will try during a weeklong Mideast tour to bring Syria’s warring parties to peace talks and to revive negotiations for a two-state agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
In Oman today, his first stop, Kerry will meet Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said to discuss efforts to persuade the Syrian regime and opposition to agree on a cease-fire and transitional government to end a conflict that has taken more than 70,000 lives over the past two years, according to United Nations estimates.
The discussions on Syria come with President Barack Obama under increasing pressure from some U.S. lawmakers to do more to bring down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. White House officials have cited the dangers of deeper involvement, including getting drawn into another war and seeing U.S. weapons fall into the hands of anti-U.S. extremists.
Kerry’s meeting with bin al Said takes place a day before another meeting in Amman, Jordan, with senior representatives from 11 nations -- including the U.K., France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- that are providing humanitarian or military support to opponents of Assad.
Syrian opposition leaders haven’t been invited to the meeting in Amman. Some of them have said they expect the U.S. and its allies to forge a common position and to try to persuade competing opposition factions to attend a peace conference proposed by Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Russia, which has its only naval base outside the former Soviet Union in Syria, has sold billions of dollars in arms to Syria and backed Assad’s regime in the 26-month conflict.
Opposition leaders, who are to meet May 23 in Istanbul to choose a new leader, have rejected the notion of any peace conference that would include Assad or his inner circle.
The opposition is pressing the Arab League to call an emergency meeting on the war. Even as France and Britain have pushed for increasing support to the rebels and suspending a European arms embargo that bars weapons sales to Syrians, President Barack Obama has been reluctant to give military support to anti-Assad forces.
“There’s got to be a transition to full executive authority to a transitional governing body, and that will be determined through mutual consent on both sides,” Patrick Ventrell, a State Department spokesman, said in a briefing in Washington yesterday.
Kerry visits Jerusalem and the West Bank for meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in a bid to revive peace talks that have been stalled for two years. He also will travel to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for an African Union conference.
In his meeting today with the sultan of Oman, Kerry will also discuss neighboring Iran, with which Oman maintains good relations. Issues of concern include Iranian military and financial support for Assad’s regime and the U.S. desire to secure the freedom of two American citizens imprisoned in Iran - - former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati and pastor Saeed Abedini -- and a third, Robert Levinson, who disappeared in the country several years ago, the State Department official said.
Oman played a critical role in negotiations that won the release of three American hikers detained by Iran after they accidentally strayed across the Iraq-Iran border in 2009.
Kerry will also highlight Oman’s intent to buy an estimated $2.1 billion air defense system from American contractor Raytheon Co. (RTN), State Department officials told reporters traveling with Kerry. Representatives from the Waltham, Massachusetts-based company are expected to sign a letter of intent with Oman’s government during Kerry’s visit
While details of the deal to buy a ground-based air defense system are yet to be completed, one State Department official said the sale would upgrade the Oman’s ability to defend its critical infrastructure from unmanned aerial vehicles and cruise missiles.
The officials, who asked not to be quoted by name because of diplomatic protocol, said the deal will further integrate defensive systems among U.S.-allied Gulf states. Raytheon spokesman Jon Kasle declined to offer additional details after the remarks by U.S. officials.
Kerry intends to highlight the planned sale as an example of the importance of U.S. exports to creating jobs at home, one U.S. official said. In December 2011 Oman placed an order for 12 F-16 jet fighters from Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) that was part of an 18-jet package the Pentagon notified Congress about in August 2010.
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