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Kerry: Russia must back transition in Syria

Published: Saturday, June 22, 2013 9:40 a.m. CST

DOHA, – The U.S. and its Arab and European allies agreed on Saturday to do more to help the embattled rebels trying to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said.

While he offered no specifics about stepped-up military and humanitarian aid, Kerry said the assistance would help change the balance on the battlefield of the civil war where regime forces have scored recent victories.

At a meeting of nearly a dozen of his counterparts, Kerry blamed Assad for the deteriorating situation in Syria where more than 93,000 people have died in a two-year civil war. He denounced Assad for inviting Iranian and Hezbollah fighters to battle alongside his troops and said the Syrian president risked turning the war into a regional sectarian conflict.

Kerry met with his counterparts in the Qatari capital on the first stop of a seven-nation trip through the Mideast and Asia where he is tackling difficult foreign policy issues — from finding peace between the Israelis and Palestinians to trying to gain traction on U.S. talks with the Taliban to end the Afghanistan war. James Dobbins, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, arrived in Doha on Saturday, but talks with the Taliban have not yet been scheduled.

Kerry seemed to put the ball in the Taliban's court, saying the Americans and Qataris were all on board to help negotiate a political resolution to the war and it was up to the Taliban to come to the table at a new political office they opened last week in Doha. "We are waiting to find out whether the Taliban will respond, Kerry said.

"We will see if we can get back on track. I don't know whether that's possible or not," Kerry said. "If there is not a decision made by the Taliban to move forward in short order, then we may have to consider whether the office has to be closed."

Kerry has been pressing hard on Russia to back an international conference intended to end the bloodshed in Syria and allow a transitional government to move the country beyond civil war.

Russia has been the key ally of Assad's regime throughout the two-year conflict.

Top U.S. diplomats are ready to go to Geneva to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other officials in coming days to advance the political process, Kerry said.

Kerry, a long-time proponent of more aggressive action in Syria, believes the international community must urgently try to stop the civil war in Syria. With Obama's decision to send the rebels arms along with humanitarian and other nonlethal aid, it appears that Kerry and like-minded U.S. officials have won over those who are more wary of sending weapons and ammunition into a war zone where they could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.

It was Kerry's first meeting with his counterparts about aid to the Syrian rebels since President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would send lethal aid to the opposition. That decision was partly based on a U.S. intelligence assessment that Assad had used chemical weapons, but Kerry expressed deeper concern about Iran and Hezbollah fighters.

"That is a very, very dangerous development," Kerry said. "Hezbollah is a proxy for Iran. ... Hezbollah in addition to that is a terrorist organization."

Kerry blamed Hezbollah and Assad with thwarting efforts to diffuse sectarian rebels and to negotiate a settlement.

"We're looking at a very dangerous situation," that had transformed "into a much more volatile, potentially explosive situation that could involve the entire region," Kerry said.

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