Secretary of State John Kerry speaks June 19 at the State Department in Washington. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry began an overseas trip Friday plunging into two thorny foreign policy problems: unrelenting bloodshed in Syria and efforts to talk to the Taliban and find a political resolution to the war in Afghanistan.
Midway through his two-week trip to at least seven countries, Kerry also will try to make progress on an elusive peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians and will visit India, the world’s biggest democracy and a rising power often viewed as a counterweight to China. He ends his trip attending a Southeast Asia security conference in Brunei.
Kerry lands Saturday in Doha, Qatar, where representatives of 11 nations in the so-called Friends of Syria group will discuss how to coordinate military and other aid to rebels trying to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad and “change the balance” on the ground, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday.
Earlier this month, President Obama announced that in addition to nonlethal aid, the United States would begin sending arms and ammunition to the rebels, who are engaged in a tough fight against Assad’s better-equipped air and ground forces. That announcement came after Assad’s military dealt the rebels serious setbacks and a U.S. intelligence assessment claimed the regime had used chemical weapons — a “red line” for the Obama administration.
On Thursday, Kerry went to Capitol Hill to brief members of Congress on the two-year civil war that has claimed an estimated 93,000 lives. The meeting in Doha also aims to gain momentum for starting peace talks in Geneva to end the crisis.
Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said that as long as there’s a conflict, there remains a need to find a framework for a dialogue because ultimately the Syrian opposition and some parts of the government are going to have to find a political solution. Geneva is the only framework that exists right now.
“We are trying to find a way for the Russians to play some type of constructive role and to stay engaged in the process,” Rhodes said, referring to Moscow’s continued support of Assad’s government.
Kerry arrives in Qatar ahead of planned U.S. talks with representatives of the Taliban at a new political office they opened this week in Doha. The secretary himself was not expected to meet with the Taliban, but other U.S. officials are to sit down with members of the militant group in coming days. The discussions would be the first U.S.-Taliban talks in nearly 1 1/2 years.
The way the Taliban unveiled their new political office, however, angered Afghan President Hamid Karzai. At a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Tuesday, the Taliban hoisted their flag and a banner emblazoned with “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” That was the name the Taliban used when they were in power more than a decade ago and made it appear that the office was an embassy and rival to the Afghan government.
The U.S. said it was disappointed with the rollout, which the administration believes was a Taliban game of one-upmanship. In response, Karzai halted negotiations with the U.S. on a bilateral security agreement governing America’s future military footprint in his country and said he would not send members of his peace council to Doha to talk with Taliban representatives. Kerry called Karzai twice this week to allay his concerns.
The diplomatic rift temporarily delayed James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, from leaving for Doha, but State Department officials say he will hold talks with the Taliban there in coming days. It’s unclear if Afghan officials will be talking with the Taliban in Doha following the group’s discussions with the Americans.
In India, Kerry will be giving a policy speech and meeting with officials to discuss economic issues, trade, energy, climate change, education and security and counterterrorism. It will be his first visit to India as secretary of state. Talks in New Delhi also are to address India’s cooperation with Pakistan’s new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.
Pakistan and India are nuclear-armed archrivals, but while they have fought three major wars since their partition in 1947, they have taken steps to improve relations in recent years.
Kerry also is to hold meetings with officials in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Israel.
In Saudi Arabia, senior State Department officials told reporters in a pre-trip briefing that Kerry would talk about how the U.S. can address concerns over extremists inside Syria and the intervention of foreign fighters from Iran and from Hezbollah. U.S. officials estimate that 5,000 Hezbollah members are fighting alongside Assad’s regime, while thousands of Sunni foreign fighters are also believed to be in Syria — including members of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate that is believed to be among the most effective rebel factions.
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.