Middle East on agenda at Kerry's first NATO meet

Apr 23, 2013, 6:26 AM EDT
S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, talks with Italy's Foreign Minister Mario Monti, during a NATO foreign ministers meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Tuesday, April 23, 2013. NATO foreign ministers meet in Brussels to discuss the situation in Syria and Afghanistan.
(AP Photo/Yves Logghe)

BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO foreign ministers met Tuesday in Brussels to discuss the wars in Syria and Afghanistan, and to learn the views of a new member of their club — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Kerry — attending his first meeting of the alliance's governing body, the North Atlantic Council, as America's top diplomat — will also see Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the session. Officials said those talks would likely include a discussion of the ethnic Chechen brothers accused of last week's Boston Marathon bombings.

Russian authorities — who have long battled an Islamist separatist movement in Chechnya — had alerted U.S. officials to suspected extremist links of the elder brother in 2011, but American investigators decided he was not a threat.

Despite the deterioration in the situation in Syria, NATO officials say there is virtually no chance the 28-nation military alliance will intervene in the bloody civil war. More than 70,000 people have died in the conflict, according to the United Nations.

The violence also has forced more than 1 million Syrians to seek safety abroad, and more are leaving by the day, burdening neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

"We can all see that the situation in Syria is getting worse," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on his way into the meeting Tuesday morning. "And we cannot ignore the risks of a regional spillover, with possible implications for allied security."

NATO has deployed three Patriot anti-missile batteries to Turkey to protect against potential scud strikes from inside neighboring Syria. They have yet to be used.

On Monday, the European Union lifted its oil embargo on Syria to provide more economic support to the forces fighting to oust the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. A day earlier in Turkey, Kerry announced that the Obama administration would double its non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, possibly including defensive military supplies for the first time.

On Afghanistan, NATO and its international allies will continue working Tuesday to define how it will support Afghan forces after 2014, when NATO will no longer have a combat role.

With next year's transition date looming, Kerry will host three-way talks in Brussels on Wednesday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and top Pakistani officials aimed at speeding possible reconciliation talks with the Taliban and improving trust and cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Kerry made no comment on his way into Tuesday's meeting, other than to utter a single word — in French. Asked in French by a journalist if he would take one question, Kerry smiled and replied, "Apres" — or "afterward." He is scheduled to hold a news conference later in the day.

Shortly after the meeting started, the foreign ministers issued a statement condemning "in the strongest possible terms" North Korea's nuclear weapons program and threatening rhetoric, saying they violated U.N. Security Council resolutions and jeopardized the prospects of lasting peace on the Korean peninsula.


Don Melvin can be reached at https://twitter.com/Don_Melvin