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October 20, 2014

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U.S. scrambles to salvage Syrian opposition talks

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Associated Press

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry boards his plane at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., en route to London in his inaugural official trip as secretary on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013.

LONDON — The U.S. is frantically trying to salvage a Syrian opposition conference set for this coming week that John Kerry plans to attend 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 the Rome conference will be critical to 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.

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 especially to America's new chief diplomat.

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 hurt chances for short-term boosts or shifts in Syria policy.

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

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

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 is bringing new ideas to increase the pressure on Assad to leave power and make way for a democratic transition. Violence in Syria has killed at least 70,000 people.

Kerry has not elaborated on those plans, but there is internal debate in the Obama administration about stepping up aid to the rebels, perhaps to include lethal military assistance.

In London, his first stop, Kerry was expected to be asked by the British about the administration's views on Britain's dispute with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. London is looking to Washington to support a referendum next month on the islands' future. Residents are expected to vote widely in favor of remaining part of Britain.

Senior officials traveling with Kerry would not discuss possible outcomes or the vote, and the U.S. position remains that it is up to Britain and Argentina to work out a resolution. Argentina claims the islands as the Islas Malvinas.

Britain asserted control of the South Atlantic islands by placing a naval garrison there in 1833. Britain and Argentina fought a brief war in 1982 after Argentina invaded the islands. More than 900 people died, most of them Argentines.

Kerry's nine-nation, 10-day trip will also take him to America's traditional European allies of Germany, France and Italy, along with Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

In addition to Syria, he will focus on conflicts in Mali and Afghanistan, and on Iran's nuclear program.

In Germany, Kerry will discuss trans-Atlantic issues with German youth in Berlin, where he spent time as a child as the son of an American diplomat posted to the divided Cold War city. He also will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the German capital.

In Paris, Kerry plans to discuss France's intervention in Mali.

Despite the numerous Middle East stops. Kerry will not travel to Israel or the Palestinian territories. He will wait to visit them when he accompanies Obama there in March.

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