Kerry back to the Middle East as region roils

Jul 15, 2013, 7:46 PM EDT
REUTERS/Mandel Ngan/Pool

WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State John Kerry is returning to the Middle East this week amid rising tensions in Egypt and deteriorating conditions in Syria that threaten to put his signature effort to re-launch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on the back burner.

Kerry departed Washington on Monday evening for Jordan where he will see Arab League officials to discuss developments in Egypt since the military's ouster of President Mohammed Morsi. They are also expected to discuss the crisis in Syria as President Bashar Assad's regime appears to have gained the upper hand against the western- and Gulf Arab-backed opposition, the State Department said.

Neither Israel nor the Palestinian territories are on Kerry's itinerary although U.S. officials said Kerry hopes to see Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Amman and wouldn't rule out an impromptu stop in Jerusalem.

The trip is Kerry's sixth to the region as secretary of state and most of his previous visits have focused on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Kerry does intend to brief the Arab foreign ministers on the status of U.S. attempts to bring the two sides together, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

There has been widespread speculation among Israelis and Palestinians that Kerry may have gained enough traction during his earlier trips to announce a resumption in the stalled talks this week. U.S. officials tamped down expectations for any imminent breakthrough, but they said Kerry would not be making the trip unless he believed he could make progress.

Kerry will arrive in Jordan a day after Deputy Secretary of State William Burns held talks in Cairo with officials in Egypt's transitional government and members of civil society aimed at pressing them to be as transparent and inclusive as possible as they work toward amending the country's constitution and restoring a democratically elected civilian government. Kerry will update his Arab counterparts on Burns' visit, officials said.

His meetings in Jordan also follow the Syrian opposition's election of new leaders. Kerry plans to discuss with his Arab counterparts how to work with the new opposition leadership at a time when the Assad regime has launched new offensives to retake ground lost earlier to rebel fighters.

The secretary plans to return to Washington on Thursday.