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Kerry: We're Trying To Offer Syrian President A Rational Choice


As Secretary of State John Kerry wraps up his first official trip overseas, he's walking a fine line on Syria. Kerry says the Obama administration has been stepping up assistance to rebels who are trying to topple the Syrian regime. But the U.S. is also worried about how all of this will play out. NPR's Michele Kelemen spoke with the secretary of State today in Doha, Qatar, and he said he's taking this one step at a time.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The new secretary of State brought few new initiatives on this trip. He announced that the U.S. would give more aid to Egypt's struggling economy, if Cairo finalizes a much-needed loan deal with the International Monetary Fund. And earlier, at a conference in Rome, Kerry announced that the U.S. would give food and medicine to Syrian rebels, and more direct help to the Syrian Opposition Council. Asked whether that's enough, he says other countries are doing more now, too, including some that are arming the rebels.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: So that's a lot of things happening at one time. Now, what the president really wants is a peaceful resolution of this. And he 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. Now, if Assad doesn't want that, then he's asking obviously for another ratcheting up of other countries and other efforts.

KELEMEN: But you've met Assad before. From what you know of him, I mean, is he crazy enough to think he can't shoot his way out of this situation or even use chemical weapons?

KERRY: I believe that President Assad until recently has calculated that he could shoot his way out of it. And that is why I said, in going to Rome, we need to take steps to begin to change his calculation. Now, rather than put everything on the table at once, we're trying to offer him what is a rational choice. There are real dangers here.

We're trying to avoid the state of Syria imploding. We're trying to avoid extremism being fed. We're trying to walk a very careful line where we know what the preference is; it is a negotiated transition. But if he doesn't change his calculation, that won't happen.

KELEMEN: I'd like to ask about your stop in Egypt because you announced $190 million in budget support for the Egyptian government. What did President Mohamed Morsi tell you that convinced you it's time to release this money?

KERRY: President Morsi agreed that we needed to move forward on the IMF and that he would do so. He suggested that he had a full understanding of the need to do that, as well as to try to reach out to the opposition and be more inclusive and deal with some of the problems in the streets that we have all spoken out about. Now, I can't tell you there's a guarantee that the things that he said he wants to do can, in fact, be affected. And if they are not, then Egypt is going to have a very difficult time in the days ahead.

But we thought it was important for the United States, as a matter of good faith, to follow through on the promise President Obama made a year ago; that they would be helped in their transition if they chose to do the right things.

KELEMEN: But this is a time of austerity for the United States. I mean, can the U.S. afford the kind of foreign policy that you want to lead?

KERRY: The president and I agree 100 percent that Egypt is vital to the region, to our interests. Now, let me give you an example. Egypt was critical in helping to bring about peace in the Gaza Strip. President Morsi personally intervened. And he is cooperating with Israel on the security in the Sinai, and cooperating with Israel in terms of extremism and intelligence.

So, for the American people, the amount of money that we're investing in Egypt, compared to its importance to us in the region - for stability, for peace - is miniscule. And we could pay a much higher price down the road if Egypt is in turmoil and chaos and the region feels those implications.

KELEMEN: Secretary Kerry spoke to us at his hotel in Doha, Qatar, the last stop on his nine-day swing through Europe and the Middle East.

I'm Michele Kelemen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.