February 25, 2013

U.S. tries to save Syrian rebels conference

Secretary Kerry sends a top envoy to convince them their attendance is key in getting more aid.

The Associated Press

OPPOSITION FIGHTERS TARGET POLICE ACADEMY NEAR ALEPPO

BEIRUT - Rebels backed by captured tanks launched a fresh offensive on a government complex housing a police academy near the northern city of Aleppo on Sunday, while the government hit back with airstrikes to try to protect the strategic installation, activists said.

If rebels capture the complex on the outskirts of Aleppo, it would mark another setback for President Bashar Assad. In recent weeks, his regime has lost control of key infrastructure in the northeast including a hydroelectric dam, a major oil field and two army bases along the road linking Aleppo with the airport to its east.

Rebels also have been hitting the heart of Damascus with occasional mortars shells or bombings, posing a stiff challenge to the regime in its seat of power.

On Saturday, opposition fighters in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour overran a military post believed to have once been the site of a partly built nuclear reactor that Israeli warplanes bombed in 2007. Syria never stated the purpose of the site known as Al-Kibar. It was not clear what the site was being used for most recently.

-- The Associated Press

LONDON - The U.S. is frantically trying to salvage a Syrian opposition conference that John Kerry plans to attend this week during his first official overseas trip as U.S. secretary of state.

A senior Obama administration official said Sunday that Kerry has sent his top Syrian envoy to Cairo in hopes of convincing opposition leaders that their participation in the conference in Rome is critical to addressing questions from potential donors and securing additional aid from the United States and Europe.

Some members of the sharply divided Syrian Opposition Council are threatening to boycott Wednesday's meeting, which is the centerpiece of Kerry's nine-nation tour of Europe and the Middle East.

According to the official, U.S. envoy Robert Ford will say that the conference is a chance for foes of Syrian President Bashar Assad to make their case for new and enhanced aid -- and get to know America's new chief diplomat, who has said he wants to propose new ideas to pressure Assad into leaving power.

The official was not authorized to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters publicly and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

If the meeting with Kerry were to be postponed, the official said the delay would likely hurt chances for short-term boosts in U.S. aid or shifts in Syria policy, which is now focused on providing nonlethal and humanitarian assistance to the opposition.

The U.S. is concerned that the same kind of infighting that doomed the Syrian National Council may be hindering the SOC, the official said.

In addition to Ford's trip to Cairo, the top U.S. diplomat for the Mideast, Elizabeth Jones, planned to head to Rome on Monday to add her voice to the argument to opposition members there.

Kerry is on a self-described "listening tour" of Europe and the Mideast, chiefly focused on ending the crisis in Syria.

The former Democratic senator from Massachusetts has said he wants to discuss fresh proposals to ratchet up the pressure on Assad and make way for a democratic transition. Violence in Syria has killed at least 70,000 people.

Kerry has not elaborated on those plans.

 

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