Syria main talking point at Kerry’s first Nato meeting

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 12:43pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 2:50pm

US Secretary of State John Kerry attends his first Nato foreign ministers meeting on Tuesday, with Syria the main talking point as opposition fighters there come under intense pressure.

The one-day meeting at Nato’s Brussels headquarters comes as Assad appears to have made headway against the rebels - and after Iran, his close ally, said on Monday it wanted him to stay on and contest elections next year.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday that elite fighters from the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah were leading the fight against rebels in the region of Qusayr in the central province of Homs.

Hezbollah, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime, is backed by Tehran.

On Sunday, Kerry announced a doubling to US$250 million of aid and non-lethal equipment for the rebels.

He urged other countries to follow suit amid sharp differences over the wisdom of providing arms, especially given the links some Syrian groups have with al-Qaeda.

“This conflict is now spilling across borders and is now threatening neighbouring countries,” Kerry said after the announcement in Istanbul. “This bloodshed needs to stop.”

It is against this backdrop that the 28 Nato foreign ministers “will have an exchange of information” about Syria and the other major issues of the day, a senior Nato diplomat said on Monday.

“We are trying to bolster the legitimate opposition in Syria,” the diplomat told a briefing, “but also to make sure that the moderate forces in the opposition get together.”

“Recent developments only underscore that the situation is far from where we want [it] to be,” the diplomat said, adding that the objective remains how to replace Assad with a democratic Syria.

Nato has no role in the conflict and alliance head Anders Fogh Rasmussen and other officials insist it requires a political solution.

Earlier this year however Nato did deploy Patriot anti-missile batteries along member Turkey’s border with Syria so as to deter any spillover of the fighting.

Talks will also include key ties with Russia and Afghanistan, from where alliance troops are due to withdraw by end-next year, the diplomat added.

Kerry is also expected to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to boost Washington-Moscow ties, the diplomat said. It was hoped this would also lead to “intensified dialogue” with Nato, especially on areas of disagreement.

Foreign ministers will also be briefed on Afghanistan, where Nato forces are steadily handing over responsibility for fighting the Taliban to the national army.

Kerry said here on Monday that he would hold a meeting in Brussels on Wednesday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the head of Pakistan’s armed forces, Ashfaq Kayani, and Pakistan Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani.

“This is the critical year in Afghanistan,” Kerry said, referring to the security handover.

The aim, he said was to “talk about how we can advance this process in the simplest, most cooperative, most cogent way so that we wind up with both Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s interests being satisfied, but most importantly, with a stable and peaceful Afghanistan”.

Relations between Islamabad and Kabul have been strained for many years. Karzai has accused Pakistan of aiding the Taliban, who seek refuge along their rugged border.

After withdrawal next year, Nato plans to keep between 8,000 and 12,000 troops there to train and advise Afghan forces, but the terms for their presence have not yet been agreed with Kabul.

Asked about reports that a deal was proving hard to find, the Nato diplomat said that the United States and the Afghan government “are working very hard” on a Status of Forces accord.