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Kerry seeks to carve out a legacy in Middle East

Syria and Israel are top priorities

John F. Kerry said Saturday that a meeting of 11 nations in Qatar was a chance to discuss “efforts to increase and coordinate support for the Syrian political and military opposition.”JACQUELYN MARTIN/REUTERS

DOHA, Qatar — Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Moscow early last month, determined to involve Russia in a new push to try to end the carnage in Syria. After a 2½-hour meeting with the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, and a private stroll with Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, the two sides announced that they would convene a conference in Geneva to bring representatives of the Syrian government together with the opposition, possibly by the end of May.

More than six weeks later, the Syrian opposition has suffered a stinging setback in Qusair, the Obama administration has decided for the first time to arm the rebels, relations between the United States and Russia have taken a turn for the worse, and it is possible that the Geneva meeting may never take place.


Undaunted, Kerry arrived here Saturday to meet with his counterparts from European and Middle Eastern nations and try again to cobble together an effective strategy to bolster the opposition, prod President Bashar Assad of Syria to yield power and end the fighting that has already killed more than 90,000 people.

The whirlwind trip, Kerry’s ninth as secretary of state, will also include stops in Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and India and a meeting in Brunei.

While his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was a global celebrity and possibly a future president, Kerry is striving to carve out a legacy as one of the most influential secretaries of state in recent years by taking on some of the world’s most intractable problems.

Unlike Clinton, a defeated rival who was persuaded to take the job by President Obama and for all her star power was often frustrated that policy was made in the White House, Kerry came in to his administration with strong ties to Obama, whose presidential campaign he helped begin at the 2004 Democratic convention.


A former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the son of a Foreign Service officer, Kerry, 69, has long aspired to be secretary of state. He arrived at a time when Obama has said the nation is at a “crossroads” in its relations with the world, with the Pentagon focused on ending the war in Afghanistan, the CIA charged with refocusing its efforts against terrorism and the president calling for a new focus on diplomacy.

But there are also some potential obstacles for Kerry. One is the centralization of foreign policy decision-making in a White House that has famously maintained a tight grip on foreign policy — so much so that, before taking the job, Kerry received an assurance that he would be consulted before major foreign policy decisions were made. And a major one is the priorities he has set for himself, particularly Syria.

“I believe that the Syria issue will be the test of John Kerry,” said Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, Kerry’s friend and former colleague.

His other priority, reviving the Mideast talks, has proved intractable for far longer. With the Palestinians warning that they may underscore their claim to statehood by seeking membership in the International Court of Justice and the possibility that the Israelis’ informal settlement freeze may lapse, Kerry is in a race to begin talks over a two-state solution.

Critics of the Obama administration see Kerry’s focus on the Middle East as an implicit acknowledgment that the White House’s widely advertised “rebalancing” to Asia is premature, and perhaps even a wishful evasion of unwelcome foreign policy realities. Supporters, though, insist there is not a contradiction.


“If you are really going to pivot to Asia, you cannot leave the Middle East in flames,” said Strobe Talbott, the head of the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board.