Kerry to Defend Syria Policy to Middle East Allies

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

The top U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.”

No. 1 Topic

The lack of more aggressive action by the U.S. after two years of fighting has angered Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim nations, according to another U.S. official who’s familiar with the Arab reaction and agreed to speak on condition of anonymity to discuss private diplomatic communications.

“It’s going to be the No. 1 topic in the Arab countries that he visits,” Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who is now with the Middle East Institute in Washington, said in an interview. “They’re all unsure of what the future bodes for Syria. They’ll be weighing how a larger American role might affect them.”

Allies will seek a clearer explanation of Obama’s Syria policy at the Doha meeting, according to French officials who spoke with reporters on condition of anonymity.

The head of the opposition’s Supreme Military Command, Major General Salim Idris, has given friendly governments a wish list that includes anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, the officials said.

Not Friendly

After reversing his earlier opposition to the U.S. sending any weaponry to Syrian rebels, Obama continued resisting calls to provide heavy armaments.

“Some of the most effective fighters within the opposition have been those who, frankly, are not particularly friendly toward the United States of America,” Obama said in an interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose that aired June 17, referring to militants, some of whom are allied with al-Qaeda. “Arming them willy-nilly is not a good recipe for meeting American interests over the long term.”

Wasel al-Shemali, a member of the Syrian National Council who sits on a committee that works with the opposition’s military leadership, said in an interview that “the Americans are obstructing efforts” by Saudi Arabia and other countries that are willing to send more potent weaponry. “Based on our experience with the Americans, I don’t expect we will receive anything from them or expect them to keep their promises,” he said.

U.S. Opinion

Obama, who ran for president in 2008 pledging to end the war in Iraq, told Rose that “we know what it’s like to rush into a war in the Middle East without having thought it through.”

The president’s reservations have support at home, where 70 percent of Americans oppose sending arms to the Syrian rebels, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Only 20 percent favor such a move, according to the survey of 1,512 adults conducted June 12 to 16, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

Kerry’s travel plans show how events in the volatile Middle East can undercut the administration’s goal of placing more emphasis on Asia. The secretary postponed plans to visit the Middle East last week to stay in Washington for meetings on Syria policy. As a result, a trip that was originally scheduled to focus solely on the Asia Pacific region was truncated so that stops in the Mideast could be added.

Israeli-Palestinian Talks

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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