John Kerry 'listening tour' focuses on Syria

John Kerry is expected to discuss the economy with key European powers.

John Kerry is expected to discuss the economy with key European powers.


John Kerry begins his first trip as US secretary of state, travelling to Europe and the Middle East for a “listening tour” to meet key allies and discuss turmoil in the Middle East, notably the civil war in Syria.

The 2004 Democratic presidential nominee flew to London yesterday on the first stop of an 11-day trip to nine countries. He will visit Berlin, Paris, Rome, Ankara, Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha.

A 28-year veteran of the US senate, Kerry was sworn in as President Obama’s secretary of state at the start of this month after Hillary Clinton stepped down after four years as America’s top diplomat.

The new secretary is expected to discuss the global economy with the biggest European powers as the US and Europe try to recover from the crisis and discuss plans for a bilateral EU-US trade agreement.

Syrian opposition

In Rome Kerry will meet members of the Syrian opposition to discuss their attempts to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. About 70,000 people have been killed in the 22-month conflict in Syria.

The tour is seen as an opportunity for Kerry to evaluate the situation in the war-torn country rather than to devise a definitive solution that he believes can only materialise if there is an end to Assad’s rule.

Ending conflict and encouraging Assad to join peace talks will be difficult given the political gulf between the warring factions in Syria where the US has provided limited nonmilitary support to rebels.

A former chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, Kerry has said he will seek a negotiated outcome with Assad and to “change his calculation” but the US is in a weakened position given the deadlock in international diplomatic efforts preventing effective intervention.

“The trip is all about Syria — this is the ticking time bomb for Kerry. If Syria collapses, it could be extremely destabilising for the region,” said Thomas Wright, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington research think tank.

“The big prize is to negotiate the exit of Assad and a stable transition. If Kerry can pull this off, he will establish himself as one of the most successful secretaries of state in recent times. But the odds are against him. The US has little leverage. Tragedy looms larger with every passing day.” Kerry will continue President Obama’s strategy of engagement as followed by Clinton who clocked almost one million miles of travel visiting 112 countries during her four years as secretary of state.

Kerry will seek further co-operation with the UK, Germany, France and Italy on Iranian sanctions and a united front on how to proceed with a solution in Syria.

Talks in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar in the second part of the trip will be tougher as Kerry attempts to reinvigorate Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and encourage political consensus and economic reform in Egypt which is still volatile two years after Hosni Mubarak’s fall.

“He’s walking a fine line with President Morsi in Egypt, trying to encourage an acceptance of civil society groups and tolerance for dissent, which now that he’s in power Morsi surprisingly finds disturbing,” said Texas Christian University professor of international politics Ralph Carter.

Clinton’s first overseas trip as secretary of state was to Asia but Kerry has chosen Europe (he lived as a child in Berlin) and the Middle East for his inaugural foreign tour.

“This trip is very much his choice and tells us something about where his priorities lie,” said Wright.