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Administration close to Syria decision as John Kerry meets with Russian counterpart

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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.

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.

The trip got off to rough start, at least rhetorically, on Tuesday when Mr. Kerry made headlines by telling an audience of young people in Germany that Americans "have a right to be stupid" if they want to be.

The former senator from Massachusetts was making a point about the sanctity of free speech, saying that Americans "live and breathe the idea of religious freedom and religious tolerance."

But the remarks backfired in the English language media, where some news outlets were trying to decide how much attention to give to a blunder Mr. Kerry made in a Feb. 20 speech: his reference to the nonexistent nation of "Kyrzakhstan," an apparent mashup of former Soviet Republics Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Tuesday's meeting was being watched closely in Washington, where friction with Moscow has reached an almost granular level on some issues.

Most recently, the two capitals have been trading barbs over the emotional topic of Americans adopting Russian children. Moscow drew harsh criticism from officials in Washington in December when it moved to outlaw such adoptions.

Dispute over the issue hit a fever pitch last week, with members of Russia's parliament and children's rights advocates in Moscow leveling harsh public criticism at American Ambassador Michael McFaul.

Mr. McFaul had declined to appear before a Russian legislative committee to discuss the progress of a U.S. investigation into the January death of a 3-year-old Russian boy adopted by an American woman in Texas.

Foreign policy analysts have suggested Russia's move to outlaw such adoptions was driven by anger among some Moscow lawmakers over the passage of a U.S. law targeting Russian officials accused by the U.S. of involvement in the 2009 death of Sergei Magnitsky.

The Russian lawyer and auditor is thought to have died in a Moscow prison after investigating fraud involving Russian tax officials. The U.S. law, known as the Magnitsky Act, blocks certain Russian officials from entering the U.S. or accessing its banking system.

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About the Author
Guy Taylor

Guy Taylor

Guy Taylor is the National Security Team Leader at The Washington Times, overseeing the paper’s State Department, Pentagon and intelligence community coverage. He’s also a frequent guest on The McLaughlin Group and C-SPAN.

His series on political, economic and security developments in Mexico won a 2012 Virginia Press Association award.

Prior to rejoining The Times in 2011, his work was ...

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