Kerry courts world support for Syria strike

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Europe on Friday to court international support for a possible strike on the Syrian regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons while making calls back home to lobby Congress where the action faces an uphill battle.

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Kerry, the Obama administration’s chief salesman for a punitive strike, landed late Friday in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. He will meet Saturday with European officials about the Syrian crisis and update them on ongoing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Kerry is scheduled to meet on Sunday in Paris with representatives of Arab nations and then later in the day hold talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in London, his last stop before returning to Washington.

Mideast peace and other issues are on the agenda for Kerry’s talks in all three stops, but the ongoing crisis in Syria where hundreds died in a chemical weapons attack last month will overshadow his visit. While abroad, Kerry is to continue making phone calls to members of Congress.

President Barack Obama decided last weekend to postpone military action against President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria and instead seek the backing of Congress. But a vote on Capitol Hill to authorize a strike is not a certainty and Kerry is using his European trip to shore up international backing.

“Those of us who believe in the international order and believe in efforts to ensure that certain international norms against chemical weapons are respected — we have much at stake in this debate,” Kerry wrote in an op-ed published on Friday by the Huffington Post.

“The world agrees with us: Chemical weapons were used in east Damascus on Aug. 21,” he wrote. “Dozens of countries or organizations around the world acknowledge the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and of those, many have said so publicly. Many countries or organizations have also stated in public or in private that the Assad regime is responsible. And we continue building support around the world every day.”

Kerry said he plans to meet with European foreign ministers here to lay out evidence that has been collected and seek to broaden support for a limited military response to deter the regime “from launching another chemical weapons attack.”

The EU is skeptical about whether any military action can be effective, and some Europeans are calling for any action to wait for a report by U.N. inspectors who went to Syria to collect evidence of the alleged sarin gas attack.

A senior State Department official, who briefed reporters on Kerry’s plane on condition that his name not be used, said Kerry also would work with U.S. allies to push for a second international conference on Syria in Geneva designed to hammer out a political resolution to the crisis.

Russia, which has been a staunch ally of Assad, remains a stumbling block, but the State Department official said the U.S. and Russia have resolved some questions about how a second international conference on Syria would be held. But the official acknowledged that no date has been set, delegations from the opposing sides have not been lined up, and questions remain about who needs to be represented at such a meeting.

On Mideast peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Kerry is expected to ask the European Union to reconsider a funding ban on Israeli institutions operating in occupied territories.

The EU decision, announced in July, marked a new international show of displeasure with Israeli settlements built on lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim some of those territories — the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — for their hoped-for state. The EU ban applies to grants, prizes and financial instruments and that the new funding guidelines go into effect in 2014. The EU issues dozens of grants, totaling millions of euros, to Israeli universities, companies and researchers every year.

A second senior State Department official, who briefed reporters on Kerry’s plane on condition that no name be used, said Kerry’s message to the EU foreign ministers would be clear: that now that the parties are in negotiations and that both leaders face painful political decisions to move them forward, that it would be important for the EU to “find a way to embrace the negotiations and encourage them to move forward rather than metaphorically banging them over the head.”

The meeting with Abbas is part of ongoing conversations Kerry is having with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The one-on-one meetings are designed to be a confidential way that lets Kerry get a sense of where each stands on various negotiating issues, define their bottom lines and to get an idea of how it might be possible to bridge the gaps between them.

Kerry also was supposed to meet with Netanyahu in Rome on this trip, but the Israeli leader decided that with the instability in Syria, it was best to stay home. The senior official said a three-way meeting was never planned because that would be premature, and that Kerry and Netanyahu would meet soon.