DOHA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday Washington was increasingly confident that weapons being sent to the Syrian opposition by other countries were going to moderate forces.
Kerry, on his first overseas tour since taking office, told a news conference in Doha he had held talks with nations in the region about the kinds of arms being sent to the different Syrian opposition forces.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are widely believed to be providing weapons to the rebels, but the United States says it does not wish to send arms for fear they may find their way to Islamist hardliners who might then use them against Western targets.
Kerry also suggested U.S. President Barack Obama wanted to give Syrian President Bashar al-Assad another opportunity to go peacefully but may take other steps to raise pressure over time.
“We had a discussion about the types of weapons that are being transferred,” Kerry said at a joint news conference with Prime Minister Sheikh Hammad bin Jassim al-Thani of Qatar, the last stop on a nine-nation tour of Europe and the Middle East.
Referring to the supply of weapons, he said: “We did discuss the question of the ability to try to guarantee that it’s going to the right people and to the moderate Syrian opposition coalition and I think it’s really in the last months that that has developed as a capacity that we have greater confidence in.”
Some 70,000 people have been killed in Syria and nearly a million have fled the country in a two-year uprising, the United Nations says. The conflict began as peaceful protests that turned violent when Assad tried to crush the revolt with force.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar share the West’s alarm at the rise of al Qaeda-aligned groups in Syria, and say the answer is for outsiders such as themselves to be more involved in backing rebels there.
The two Gulf Arab states have argued that building ties through aid to favoured opposition groups is the only way to ensure that other, hardline Islamist factions are sidelined.
Kerry said the United States could take other actions if Assad does not choose to give way peacefully, a possibility that seems remote after two years of fierce fighting.
In Rome on Thursday, Kerry announced the United States would shift policy to provide medical supplies and food directly to opposition fighters, an option it had previously rejected. Obama so far has not been willing to provide arms to the rebels.
“The president’s purpose here ... is to try to minimize the killings, to try to end the (war), end the violence,” he said.
“It’s the president’s judgment for the moment that we would like to see whether or not President Assad shares that view and would like to in fact save his country ... through a peaceful process,” he added. “There are lots of options that remain if in the days or weeks or whatever that opportunity is not taken.”
In interviews with U.S. broadcasters, Kerry made the point more bluntly.
“He (Obama) feels strongly that the immediate answer is not to empower more killing; it is rather to try to say to President Assad there is a solution,” Kerry told National Public Radio in an interview. “Now if Assad doesn’t want that, then he’s asking, obviously, for yet another ratcheting up.”
Separately, he told CNN he hoped “the next weeks and months” would “provide a window of opportunity for President Assad and the Russians and Iranians and others to get a negotiation that actually saves lives and provides a transitional government.”
Speaking at the news conference, the Qatari prime minister suggested that the U.S. opposition to arming the rebels might be softening, though he provided no details.
“There is a change in the international position and the American position in this regard. They are talking about weapons,” he said through an interpreter. “We (had) hoped that this (would have) happened some time ago, before, because this would have maybe lessened the death and destruction.”
The prime minister also bluntly pressed Kerry to try to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which collapsed in 2010.
“We talked about the peace process, which is at a standstill now or maybe even dead for all intents and purposes,” the prime minister said. “We hope that there will be some real movement by the main sponsor, and that is the United States of America.”
Writing by Sami Aboudi, William Maclean and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Michael Roddy and Sophie Hares