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Kerry: Syria civil war might spread across region

DOHA, Qatar -- Unless the bloodshed in Syria stops, the region could descend into a chaotic sectarian conflict, Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday as he called for an urgent political resolution to the civil war that has dragged on for two years and claimed 93,000 lives.

The top U.S. diplomat and his counterparts from 10 Arab and European nations agreed at a daylong meeting in Qatar to step up military and other assistance to the Syrian rebels. However, Kerry would not disclose details of the aid, saying only that it would re-balance the fight between the rebels and President Bashar Assad's better-equipped forces that are increasingly backed by Iranian and Hezbollah fighters.

"The continued bloodshed at the hands of the Assad regime and the increasing involvement of Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, threaten the very prospects of a political settlement and of peace," Kerry said, adding that the United Staes and other nations are not backing the rebels to seek a military victory in Syria.

"We do so to . . . find a political settlement," he said. "Reliable civilian governance and a stronger and more effective armed opposition will better enable the opposition to be able to provide the counterweight to the initiative of Assad to reach out across borders . . . to bring Iranians and to bring Hezbollah -- again, a terrorist organization -- to the table."

Rebels say they already have received new weapons from allied countries-- but not the United States -- that they say will help them shift the balance of power on the ground, where regime forces have scored recent military victories. Experts and activists said the new weapons include anti-tank missiles and small quantities of anti-aircraft missiles.

"Our information from Doha says that five countries have decided to start arming us immediately, and four other countries will give us logistical and technical support and, at a later stage, arm the Free Syrian Army," a spokesman for the opposition fighters, Loay AlMikdad, said in an interview with Qatar's Al-Jazeera TV. He said the nations were Arab and non-Arab, but he would not elaborate.

It was Kerry's first meeting with his counterparts about aid to the Syrian rebels since President Obama announced that the United States would send lethal aid to the opposition despite concern that the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamists in Syria. That decision was partly based on a U.S. intelligence assessment that Assad had used chemical weapons, but Kerry expressed deeper concern about how Iran and Hezbollah fighters have joined the fight.

"That is a very, very dangerous development," Kerry said. "Hezbollah is a proxy for Iran.  . . .  Hezbollah, in addition to that, is a terrorist organization."

Kerry blamed Hezbollah and Assad with undermining efforts to negotiate a settlement and set up a transitional government.

"We're looking at a very dangerous situation," that has transformed "into a much more volatile, potentially explosive situation that could involve the entire region," Kerry said.

The war already has spilled into neighboring countries and is increasingly being fought along sectarian lines, pitting Sunni against Shiite Muslims and threatening the stability of Syria's neighbors.

Kerry said top U.S. diplomats are ready to go to Geneva next week to meet with U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and other officials to advance the political process.

Doha was the first stop on Kerry's two-week trip through the Middle East and Asia. He is to discuss a wide range of bilateral issues today and Monday with Indian officials in New Delhi -- just one stop on a seven-nation tour where he will tackle prickly U.S. foreign policy issues -- from finding peace between the Israelis and Palestinians to trying to gain traction on U.S. talks with the Taliban to end the Afghanistan war.

James Dobbins, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, arrived in Doha on Saturday, but talks with the Taliban, which were supposed to take place in coming days, have not been scheduled. They are to be held at a controversial new political office the Taliban just opened in Doha.

Kerry said the Americans and Qataris were on board to help negotiate a political resolution to the war but that it is up to the Taliban to come to the table. "We are waiting to find out whether the Taliban will respond," Kerry said, lowering expectations about the prospects for negotiation.

"We will see if we can get back on track. I don't know whether that's possible or not," he said. "If there is not a decision made by the Taliban to move forward in short order, then we may have to consider whether the office has to be closed."

At the close of the meeting, the eleven nations -- the United States, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Britain, Germany, France and Italy -- expressed concern about the growing sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict, renewed their call on the regime to let U.N. investigators probe the reported use of chemical weapons and condemned the intervention of Hezbollah militias and fighters from Iran and Iraq.

In a joint news conference in Tehran, Iran Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and his Lebanese counterpart, Adnan Mansour, lambasted Western powers that arm and support Syrian opposition fighters.

"I am shocked to see how Western powers speak of human rights and act otherwise when it comes to Syria -- where they arm cannibals who fought in Syria so that they [opposition fighters] continue their atrocities more than before," Salehi said.

In their communique, the ministers expressed support for a transitional governing body that would take charge of military and other government institutions. However, they added that "Bashar Assad has no role in the transitional governing body, or thereafter."

That is a sticking point with Russia, a key Assad ally that has resisted calls for his removal. Russia might have worked to assure the Assad government's attendance at any future peace conference, but Moscow also has been undermining peace efforts by sending more weapons to help the regime's counteroffensive against the rebels.

Russian leaders warn that, if Assad steps aside, the resulting power vacuum could be quickly filled by al-Qaida connected rebels, who are well-armed and aggressive.


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