Kerry Hints at Syria Policy Change as Opposition Talks

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Syrian rebels should be given aid if President Bashar al-Assad refuses to join talks and goes on killing his own people.

“If the president of the country decides he isn’t going to come and negotiate and he’s just going to kill his people, then you at least need to provide some support for the people who are fighting” for their freedom, Kerry said in remarks to students today in Berlin. He didn’t specify what support he meant.

Kerry, who’s on his first overseas trip as the top U.S. diplomat, yesterday hinted at a Syria policy change as that country’s opposition agreed under American pressure to attend an international meeting this week in Rome. “We’re determined to change the calculations of President Assad on the ground,” he said, without offering details.

The change of heart by forces opposing Assad, which had threatened to boycott the Feb. 28 Rome event, comes as Kerry seeks a breakthrough to end a two-year conflict that has left 70,000 dead and created almost a million refugees.

“The moment is ripe” to consider further steps on Syria, Kerry said yesterday at a London news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague. Kerry said he’s a new secretary of state and that President Barack Obama has won a “significant mandate” to act in his second term.

He also said Obama “has been engaged in examining exactly in what ways we may be able to contribute.”

Rome Meeting

On its official Facebook page, Syrian opposition head Moaz al-Khatib agreed to Kerry’s plea to attend the gathering of about 60 nations in Rome. Officials from the countries have met four times so far on the Syria conflict, giving the opposition legitimacy while failing to come up with effective ways to usher Assad from power.

Khatib, a former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus who has presented himself as a moderate, said yesterday that the opposition would “re-evaluate its relations with the international sides based on the results” reached in Rome.

Vice President Joe Biden telephoned Khatib to welcome the decision by the opposition members to attend the Rome meeting, and stressed Obama’s “commitment to a political transition in Syria to a democratic and inclusive post-Assad government that protects the rights of all its citizens,” the White House said in a statement released last night.

Biden said the meeting offered an opportunity for discussions “on ways to speed assistance to the opposition and support to the Syrian people.”

U.S. Proposals

Kerry, in his comments in London, said, “We have a lot of ideas on the table and some of them I am confident will come to maturity by the time we meet in Rome.” Others, he said, “will take a little gestation period, but they’re no less part of the mix.”

Kerry meets later today in Berlin with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss Syria. Russia has supplied Assad with weapons and vetoed United Nations sanctions against the country.

Lavrov met yesterday in Moscow with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, who said the Assad regime was willing to talk to the armed opposition, according to the Syrian state-run news agency SANA. There was no mention of his terms for talks, such as whether the rebels would have to disarm and whether the talks would include removing Assad from power.

As officials from the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Russia, China, and France meet with Iranian officials today in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Kerry said that the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon “is simply unacceptable.”

He said that a “window for a diplomatic solution is open today,” and that the so-called P5+1 group is “prepared to negotiate in good faith, in mutual respect, in order to avoid whatever terrible consequences might follow.”

“The choice is Iran’s,” Kerry said.

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