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Kerry moves to salvage talks with Syrian group

| Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, 6:57 p.m.

LONDON — The United States is frantically trying to salvage a Syrian opposition conference that John Kerry plans to attend this week during his first official overseas trip as secretary of State.

A senior Obama administration official said on 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 and securing additional aid from the United States and Europe.

Some members of the sharply divided Syrian Opposition Council threatened to boycott Wednesday's meeting, the centerpiece of Kerry's nine-nation visit to Europe and the Middle East.

U.S. envoy Robert Ford will tell the opposition that the conference is a chance for foes of Syrian President Bashar Assad to make their case for more aid — and get to know Kerry.

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

Kerry is on a self-described “listening tour” of Europe and the Mideast, chiefly focused on ending the crisis in Syria, where at least 70,000 people have died.

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.

Key to increasing pressure on Assad will be Russia. Kerry will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the second stop of his trip, in Berlin, on Tuesday.

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.

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