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Syrian opposition leaders say they plan to attend a conference this week in Rome. They want to see what the new U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has to offer to help them bring an end of President Bashar al-Assad's regime. The opposition leaders had been threatening to boycott the meeting, but Kerry is promising he won't leave them dangling in the wind. NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with Kerry this week on his first trip overseas as secretary of state. She filed this report from Berlin.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary Kerry says he understands the frustration of Syrian opposition figures who go to international meetings but have little to show Syrians who are suffering on the ground. As a senator, Kerry himself advocated for a more assertive U.S. policy.
SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: And I understand that the reason people question another meeting. But I'm a new secretary of state. I'm here now beginning a fresh term with a president who has just been re-elected in a significant mandate in the country. And the president of the United States has sent me to this series of meetings and sent me to Rome because he is concerned about the course of events.
KELEMEN: So the time is ripe, Kerry says, for the U.S. to think about what more it can do to support opponents of Bashar al-Assad. He called the Syrian opposition leader to tell him that and encourage him to go to Rome. Before flying to Berlin, Kerry met in London with British Foreign Secretary William Hague who says his country will significantly increase its assistance to the Syrian opposition.
WILLIAM HAGUE: In the face of such murder and threat of instability, our policy cannot stay static as the weeks go by and it is an important opportunity in Rome on Thursday to discuss this with our allies and partners.
KELEMEN: Hague points out that the European Union recently revised its arms embargo to allow non-lethal assistance to rebel fighters in Syria. Asked whether the U.S. might do the same, Secretary Kerry would only say he has some ideas - but he stressed the U.S. is interested in diplomacy.
KERRY: We are determined that the Syrian opposition is not going to be dangling in the wind, wondering where the support is or if it's coming. And we are determined to change the calculation on the ground for President Assad. Now, let me say that even as I emphasize, it is the policy of the United States, and I believe our allies, to pursue a political resolution.
KELEMEN: And a key player in that is Russia, which has been shielding Assad diplomatically. Kerry is meeting his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, here in Berlin today. This is the second stop on a nine-nation swing through Europe and the Middle East.
Unlike his predecessor Hillary Clinton, who traveled first to Asia, Kerry's trip is more conventional. He's been consulting longtime allies on everything from Syria to Iran and Mali. And while the schedule is filled mainly with official meetings, he did get a chance to meet young people in Berlin to tell them a bit about himself.
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KERRY: (German spoken)
KELEMEN: Kerry lived in Berlin as a child when his father, a foreign service officer, was serving here.
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KERRY: I was here as a young man, very young. I was 12 years old. And I used to ride my bicycle all up and down the Kurfurstendamm.
KELEMEN: He was speaking here in a trendy Internet cafe answering policy questions and taking compliments on his vineyard vines tie. It was a lively setting for a man well known by world leaders but lacking the rock star following Clinton had on such trips. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Berlin.
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