U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry heads to Jordan today for talks with Mideast and European allies to promote a negotiated end to the crisis in Syria, as government and rebel forces battle for control of the strategic city of Al-Qusair.
Kerry will press leaders from 10 other nations providing humanitarian or military support to the Syrian opposition -- including the U.K., France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- to back a U.S.-Russian effort to persuade Syria’s government and rebels to come together for negotiations next month toward a cease-fire and establishing a transitional government.
The meeting in Amman will include consultations about aid provided by various countries to opposition forces and the humanitarian crisis in Syria that has spread to neighboring nations, according to a State Department official who briefed reporters traveling with Kerry on condition of not being named.
The 26-month conflict between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian rebels has taken more than 70,000 lives and created more than 1.5 million refugees, according to United Nations estimates.
Government fighter planes and heavy artillery pounded rebel-held Al-Qusair yesterday, bringing the death toll from three days of clashes to more than 90, according to the U.K.- based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The U.S. is concerned about a possible massacre in Al-Qusair of Sunni Muslim civilians opposed to Assad. The U.S. official who briefed reporters cited the slaughter of several hundred civilians that he said was committed by regime militias in the nearby town of Banias. The official said the world is watching and will hold Assad’s forces accountable for any such atrocities.
Meanwhile, an opposition commander yesterday threatened to wipe communities inhabited by minority Shiite Muslims and Assad’s Alawite sect “off the map” in retaliation if Al-Qusair falls to government forces and pro-rebel Sunni civilians are massacred.
“We don’t want this to happen, but it will be a reality imposed on everyone,” Colonel Abdel-Hamid Zakaria, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army in Turkey, told Al-Arabiya television May 20. “It’s going to be an open, sectarian, bloody war to the end.”
Al-Qusair is close to the highway linking Damascus to the coast and has been a conduit for weapons flowing through Lebanon to the anti-Assad rebels.
The Obama administration is also concerned by opposition reports of foreign combatants. Free Syrian Army rebels say fighters from Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah are on the battlefield in Al-Qusair aiding Syrian government forces, according to the U.S. diplomat.
Hezbollah and Shiite-led Iran have been key allies of Assad’s government, whose upper ranks come from the Alawite sect, derived from Shiite Islam. Leaders of the rebel army and political opposition are mostly Sunni, and are backed by Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which have supplied weapons to the opposition forces.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and Defense Minister Salman Bin Abdul Aziz met yesterday with Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, according to Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news agency.
The talks on Syria come as President Barack Obama faces increasing pressure from some U.S. lawmakers to do more to bring down Assad’s government. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on a 15-3 vote, approved a bill yesterday that would allow the U.S. to arm Syrian rebels.
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.
Some Syrian opposition leaders 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 as part of its backing for Assad’s regime.
Some opposition leaders, who are to meet Thursday in Istanbul to choose a new leadership, have said they won’t attend a peace conference that includes Assad or his inner circle.
In one sign of the danger the Syrian crisis poses to neighboring states, Israeli troops fired into Syria overnight after shots from across the border struck a military vehicle patrolling the Golan Heights, the Israeli army said in an e-mailed statement.
Kerry met with Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said yesterday at the start of his weeklong tour of the Middle East and Africa, discussing Syria as well as neighboring Iran, with which Oman maintains good relations.
Later this week, Kerry will visit 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.
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