- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Secretary of State John F. Kerry will embark on his first overseas journey as America’s top diplomat next week, a whirlwind tour of nine nations in 11 days with a heavy focus on how to end nearly two years of bloodshed and civil war gripping Syria.

Mr. Kerry will visit several Arab capitals, but will not visit Israel on his maiden diplomatic tour. President Obama is expected to make the first trip of his presidency to Israel next month.

State Department officials said Tuesday that the Feb. 24 to March 6 trip will by highlighted by a diplomatic gathering in Rome of representatives from European and Middle Eastern powers who are supporting opposition forces seeking the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Leaders of the Syrian Opposition Council — a body of Syrian dissidents hoping to fill the vacuum of power in the war-torn nation should Mr. Assad’s government fall — are expected to attend the Rome meeting. Mr. Kerry also is expected to meet with them privately, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

The meeting will occur after week’s of speculation in Washington over whether the Obama administration may be shifting toward a policy of openly channeling weapons to rebel fighters who are battling against Syrian military forces loyal to Mr. Assad. European Union powers voted to extend a ban on such weapon shipments earlier this week.

Despite calls for such a policy from some Republicans — and private support for it from former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top administration officials — the White House has resisted arming the rebels.

Ms. Nuland said Tuesday that she did not “have anything new to announce” on arming the rebels, who some Western officials fear contain a strong component of Islamist radical fighters.

There has also been speculation this week that Mr. Kerry may be preparing for a direct meeting during the trip with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The Obama administration’s push for an international solution to the Syrian conflict has consistently been thwarted by Moscow, a longtime ally of Mr. Assad.

Russia, which maintains a naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, 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.

Mr. Kerry spoke on the telephone with Mr. Lavrov on Sunday, and the State Department said the secretary of state stressed the need for Washington and Moscow to work together on Syria. Ms. Nuland said the subject of a possible face-to-face meeting in Rome was also touched upon during the call. But she noted that Russia has previously declined to participate in similar meetings.

“The Russians will have to make their own decision,” she said. “But I wouldn’t expect that their position on these meetings is going to change.”

State Department officials said Mr. Kerry’s trip will include stops in Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, with meetings on a range of topics, including the ongoing French military intervention in Mali and the impending withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan.

Mr. Kerry is expected to outline his overall vision for the trip and for American foreign policy in general during a speech he is slated to deliver Wednesday at the University of Virginia.

State Department officials have suggested the speech will present a broad-stroke argument for why Washington must continue financing foreign-policy initiatives despite looming budget fights related to the nation’s deficit.

Despite focus of his upcoming trip being dominated by Syria and the Middle East, Mr. Kerry will not be making stops in Israel or the Palestinian territories. Israel held parliamentary elections on Jan. 22, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still trying to put together a coalition government.

Ms. Nuland said such factors made the timing for an Israel visit less than ideal and noted that Mr. Kerry will be traveling there with Mr. Obama.

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