John Kerry views his first trip as U.S. secretary of state as a listening tour, but the leaders he meets will want to hear whether he has any new ideas on Syria, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Kerry left Washington on Sunday for London, the first stop on a nine-nation, 11-day trip that will also take him to Berlin, Paris, Rome, Ankara, Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha before he returns home on March 6.
It is an introductory trip for a man who needs little introduction abroad after spending 28 years in the U.S. Senate, all of them as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the last four as its chairman.
After talks with allies in London, Berlin and Paris, Kerry travels to Rome to meet members of the Syrian opposition as well as a wider group of nations seeking to support them in their nearly two-year quest to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
While the opposition Syrian National Coalition is willing to negotiate a peace deal to end the country’s civil war, members this week agreed that Assad must step down and cannot be a party to any settlement.
The political chasm between the sides, along with a lack of opposition influence over rebels on the ground and an international diplomatic deadlock preventing effective intervention, has allowed fighting to rage on. Almost 70,000 people have been killed in 22 months of conflict, according to a U.N. estimate.
U.S. President Barack Obama has limited U.S. support to non-lethal aid for the rebels who, despite receiving weapons from countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are poorly armed compared to Assad’s army and loyalist militias.
Although the Obama administration appears to be rethinking the question of arming the rebels, there are few signs it is on the verge of a new approach toward Syria, said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank.
“I have a hard time imagining that this is the time to float a new American strategy because he (Kerry) still doesn’t have a counterpart in the Department of Defense (and) the new administration is still getting set up,” Alterman said.
“I don’t see any sign that there is a new strategy but I do see signs that he wants to be engaged and understand what the options are for moving something in a different direction,” he said.
Kerry makes his first foreign trip as senior U.S. diplomats, along with counterparts from Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, will meet Iranian officials on Tuesday in Kazakhstan in an effort to persuade Iran to curtail its nuclear program.
The United States and many of its allies suspect Iran may be using its civil nuclear program as a cover to develop atomic weapons, a possibility that Israel, which is regarded as the Middle East’s only nuclear power, sees as an existential threat.
Iran says its program is solely for peaceful purposes, such as generating electricity and making medical isotopes.
Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution think-tank said Saudi King Abdullah would regard himself, rather than Kerry, as the listening party and want to hear of any new U.S. approaches on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran and other issues.
“The secretary has the tough job of selling as something new an administration (whose) foreign policies are pretty well established,” Riedel said.
“There is not a high level of expectation that it is going to be able to break the logjam on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, get Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program and topple Bashar al-Assad,” he added. “The Saudis will understand that Kerry will try to put a new face on policies which are now pretty well known but they will be looking for what’s new.”