Kerry hints US ready to aid Syrian rebels

US secretary of state John Kerry in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin yesterday as part of a nine- nation, 11-day trip that will also take him to Paris, Rome, Ankara, Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha. photograph: fabrizio bensch/reuters

US secretary of state John Kerry in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin yesterday as part of a nine- nation, 11-day trip that will also take him to Paris, Rome, Ankara, Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha. photograph: fabrizio bensch/reuters

Wed, Feb 27, 2013, 00:00

US secretary of state John Kerry used his inaugural visit to Germany yesterday to signal Washington’s readiness to support anti-Assad Syrian rebels – and recall the time he almost caused an international incident in Berlin.

The year was 1954, the cold war was getting chilly, and a 12-year-old Kerry – living in West Berlin with his diplomat parents – borrowed his diplomatic passport for a bike ride into the communist east. “I saw the difference between east and west . . . I didn’t feel energy or movement,” he told German students in Berlin yesterday.

When he got home he was grounded instantly, his apoplectic father warning that he “could have created an international incident”.

Mr Kerry said his memories of a ruined post-war Berlin – and the visible east/west differences – left a lasting impression and gave him a lifetime belief in freedom and tolerance.

Emphasising the freedom narrative ahead of his meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel was, perhaps, no coincidence.

American dream

Four years ago, in an unusually personal speech to the US Congress, the German leader recalled how growing up “in the part of Germany that was not free” made her “passionate about the American dream” of liberty and opportunity.

Despite that belief in the American dream, Dr Merkel’s relations with US president Barack Obama have always been seen more as workmanlike than warm. Talk of Washington’s new focus on Asia has done little to improve matters.

But the German leader indicated in Berlin yesterday she was ready for a fresh start with the second Obama administration. The US and Europe shared “not just common values but common tasks”, from Afghanistan and Syria to the Middle East peace process and talks on a transatlantic trade deal.

Europe, she noted drily, had “plenty to fill the time” with Mr Kerry and the second Obama administration.

Ahead of talks, Mr Kerry echoed the insistence of US vice-president Joe Biden in Munich that Europe remained a key partner for the White House. Mr Kerry praised the “remarkable” transformation of the once-divided city and described ties to Germany as “unquestionably one of our most strong, vibrant alliances in the world”.

A proposed transatlantic trade deal was “good for all of us”, he said, and would lift economies on all sides.

He repeated hopes that fresh dialogue between Washington and Tehran would end the diplomatic stand-off over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Amid western doubts that Iran’s uranium enrichment programme is for energy purposes, as Tehran insists, Mr Kerry said the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon was “simply unacceptable”.

Hard line

Mr Kerry held a harder line on Syria. After vowing on Monday in London to “change the calculations” on a conflict that has claimed more than 60,000 lives, he indicated yesterday that Washington was ready to support anti-Assad rebels.

“If the president of the country decides he isn’t going to come and negotiate and he’s just going to kill his people,” he said, “then you at least need to provide some support for the people who are fighting” for freedom.

Mr Kerry’s Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, flew to Berlin yesterday to discuss the Syria stand-off. A supplier of arms to the Syrian government, Moscow has vetoed UN sanctions against the country.