Kerry heads to Saudi to organize support for Syria opposition

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry headed Tuesday to Saudi Arabia in hopes of coordinating support for Syria’s opposition fighters amid fears that a prolonged civil war will embolden extremists.

Kerry will spend several hours in the western city of Jeddah consulting with the leadership of the oil-rich monarchy, which has been outspoken in its opposition to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

President Barack Obama is cautious about deeper U.S. involvement in the increasingly sectarian conflict but has vowed to step up support for the rebels after concluding that Assad defied warnings and used chemical weapons.

Kerry told a conference of major powers in Qatar on Saturday that the United States and its partners were boosting military aid to Syria’s mainstream rebels, although he has been reticent on the exact nature of the assistance.

In interviews ahead of his departure to Jeddah, Kerry declined to raise concerns about potential Saudi and Qatari support for hardliners but said it was critical to strengthen moderate rebels to prevent an Assad victory.

“If the United States does nothing, and the rest of the world does nothing, then Syria is going to wind up in an even worse condition than it is today,” Kerry told CBS News from New Delhi.

A worse scenario in Syria could include “a total breakup, with radicals, extremists able to get a hold of chemical weapons and free to use it as a base to begin to conduct their operations again against the West and the United States,” Kerry said.

Kerry has called for greater support to Syria’s rebels by accusing Iran of “internationalization” of the conflict through the growing role in the war of guerrillas from Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite movement backed by Tehran.

Kerry has insisted that the United States is not looking necessarily for a victory by the rebels but instead wants to step up pressure on Assad until he agrees to peace negotiations as set out by a conference in Geneva last year.

Russia, a supporter of the Assad family’s four-decade rule in Syria, joined the United States in backing the Geneva plan.

Kerry will meet in Jeddah with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal as well as Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the kingdom’s intelligence chief who was formerly ambassador to the United States.

Kerry will head later Tuesday to Kuwait, another U.S.-allied monarchy, and then this week will go to Jordan in a new bid at making peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

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