By Matthew Lee, Associated Press —
LONDON — The U.S. is frantically trying to salvage a Syrian opposition conference that John Kerry plans to attend this week during his first official overseas trip as U.S. secretary of state.
A senior Obama administration official said Sunday that Kerry has sent his top Syrian envoy to Cairo in hopes of convincing opposition leaders that their participation in the conference in Rome is critical to addressing questions from potential donors and securing additional aid from the United States and Europe.
Some members of the sharply divided Syrian Opposition Council are threatening to boycott Wednesday’s meeting, which is the centerpiece of Kerry’s nine-nation tour of Europe and the Middle East.
According to the official, U.S. envoy Robert Ford will say that the conference is a chance for foes of Syrian President Bashar Assad to make their case for new and enhanced aid — and get to know America’s new chief diplomat, who has said he wants to propose new ideas to pressure Assad into leave power.
The official was not authorized to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters publicly and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
If the meeting with Kerry were to be postponed, the official said the delay would likely hurt chances for short-term boosts in U.S. aid or shifts in Syria policy, which is now focused on providing non-lethal and humanitarian assistance to the opposition.
The U.S. is concerned that the same kind of infighting that doomed the Syrian National Council may be hindering the SOC, the official said.
In addition to Ford’s trip to Cairo, the top U.S. diplomat for the Mideast, Elizabeth Jones, planned to head to Rome on Monday to add her voice to the argument to opposition members there.
Kerry is on a self-described “listening tour” of Europe and the Mideast, chiefly focused on ending the crisis in Syria.
The former Democratic senator from Massachusetts has said he wants to discuss fresh proposals to ratchet up the pressure on Assad and make way for a democratic transition. Violence in Syria has killed at least 70,000 people.
Kerry has not elaborated on those plans, but there is internal debate in the Obama administration about stepping up aid to the rebels, perhaps to include lethal military assistance.
Key to increasing pressure on Assad will be Russia, which has staunchly resisted efforts to push Assad out, to the increasing anger and frustration of the United States and its allies in Europe and the Middle East.
Kerry will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the second stop of his trip, in Berlin on Tuesday, and hopes to get a better idea of what Moscow may be willing to support. However, two officials traveling with Kerry said they did not expect any breakthroughs in the German capital.
In London, his first stop, Kerry was expected to be asked by the British about the administration’s views on Britain’s dispute with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. London is looking to Washington to support a referendum next month on the islands’ future. Residents are expected to vote widely in favor of remaining part of Britain.
Senior officials traveling with Kerry would not discuss possible outcomes or the vote, and the U.S. position remains that it is up to Britain and Argentina to work out a resolution. Argentina claims the islands as the Islas Malvinas.
Britain asserted control of the South Atlantic islands by placing a naval garrison there in 1833. Britain and Argentina fought a brief war in 1982 after Argentina invaded the islands. More than 900 people died, most of them Argentines.
After Britain and Germany, Kerry’s 10-day trip will take him to France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
In addition to Syria, he will focus on conflicts in Mali and Afghanistan, and on Iran’s nuclear program.
In Germany, Kerry will discuss trans-Atlantic issues with German youth in Berlin, where he spent time as a child as the son of an American diplomat posted to the divided Cold War city.
In Paris, Kerry plans to discuss France’s intervention in Mali.
Despite the numerous Middle East stops, Kerry will not travel to Israel or the Palestinian territories. He will wait to visit them when he accompanies Obama there in March.