- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2013

As Secretary of State John F. Kerry met in Berlin with his Russian counterpart, American and European officials said Tuesday that the Obama administration is close to deciding whether to provide direct assistance to rebel forces in Syria.

A senior Kerry aide said the bloodshed in Syria was a big part of Tuesday’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, but the two men also discussed trade and U.S. concerns about a law barring Americans from adopting Russian children.

The meeting was part of the secretary of state’s first overseas, multinational diplomatic mission, and was held just days ahead of a key international meeting in Rome to address the ongoing violence in Syria.

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The Associated Press reported that a decision could be made by Thursday on whether the United States will supply direct assistance to elements of the Free Syrian Army as they seek to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Tuesday’s meeting was the latest attempt by Washington to find a patch of common ground with Russia on the issue of Syria.

Despite the Obama administration’s self-described “reset” with Moscow in 2009, most foreign policy analysts in Washington agree that Russia is engaged in significant backsliding toward authoritarianism, with few punches being pulled in its defiance toward the West.

Since Vladimir Putin retook the nation’s presidency last year, his government has ordered the U.S. Agency of International Development to cease operations in Russia and forced Radio Free Europe to stop broadcasting in the nation where rights groups have cited a growing crackdown on opposition movements.

Moscow, long one of Mr. Assad’s closest allies, maintains a naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, and effectively blocked a U.S.- and Arab League-backed U.N. Security Council resolution that would have authorized an international intervention in Syria last year.

An estimated 70,000 Syrians have been killed in fighting since military forces loyal to Mr. Assad began cracking down on opposition groups in March 2011.

Since then, Russia has consistently thwarted the Obama administration’s push for a multination intervention in Syria, but there were signs Tuesday that Moscow may be changing its tune.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov met for an hour and 45 minutes and engaged in a “really serious and hardworking session,” with a focus on how they could “work together” to implement a so-called Geneva agreement on Syria.

The agreement — backed by several other international parties during a meeting in June in Switzerland — seeks to bring officials from the Assad government to the negotiating table with opposition groups fighting for the Syrian president’s ouster.

The extent to which Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov truly connected on the issue likely won’t be known until other multiparty meetings on Syria are held later in the week.

On Wednesday, for instance, representatives from nearly a dozen nations are gathering in Rome to hold talks with leaders of the Syrian opposition. Notably absent from that meeting will be Russia.

Tuesday’s meeting with Mr. Lavrov, meanwhile, marked something of a high point on Mr. Kerry’s first overseas journey as America’s top diplomat.

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