31 January 2013

Mali: Biden's European Trip to Include Discussions On Syria, Mali

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Washington — Vice President Biden is traveling to Germany, France and the United Kingdom February 1-5. He will attend the Munich Security Conference and discuss the conflict in Syria, as well as U.S. support for military action by France and the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to take back northern Mali from armed Islamist rebels.

Biden's national security adviser, Tony Blinken, said the vice president will join 350 world leaders, government ministers and opinion leaders in Munich and plans to meet on the sidelines of the February 2 conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, U.N. and Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi and Syrian National Coalition President Moaz al-Khatib for discussions on the continuing violence between Bashar al-Assad's regime and the Syrian political opposition.

Speaking in a January 31 conference call with White House Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, Blinken said the Obama administration is "looking at Syria very intensely" and that it would be "very important for the Russians to put their full weight into political transition" from the Assad regime. "That's the best path forward," he said.

Rhodes said that along with U.S. sanctions and other means of pressuring Assad to step down, the Obama administration is working to bolster the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in order to "indicate that the metrics are turning away from Assad and that there is a broadly inclusive opposition that Syrians can get behind, but also so that we can begin the work of planning for a future within Syria after Bashar al-Assad leaves power."

In his discussions with the Syrian opposition leader and others, Biden also plans to discuss how the United States can continue to provide humanitarian assistance to deal with the dire humanitarian situation in Syria and to continue political and nonlethal support to the opposition that Rhodes said is "helping them coalesce and become more organized and provide certain services like medical services to the Syrian people."

Biden will begin his European visit with talks in Berlin February 1 with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Following his participation at the Munich Security Conference, he will proceed to Paris for meetings February 4 with President François Hollande.

"There, I think the agenda will focus on our strong support for the French and African mission in Mali," as well as counterterrorism cooperation in the Sahel region, Blinken said, which requires a comprehensive approach using political and economic as well as military tools.

"What we're seeing across North Africa and parts of the Middle East is an extremist threat that is fueled by the reality of porous borders, ungoverned territory, too readily available weapons, increasing collaboration among some of these groups and, in many cases, new governments that lack the capacity and sometimes the will to deal with the problem," he said.

Rhodes said the Obama administration has been very supportive of the French-led intervention against Islamic extremists in Mali and has provided assistance, including aircraft refueling and logistical support to move equipment into the country.

"We're also looking at the broader question of how to achieve a more lasting political resolution within Mali that includes ... a process within the country to address underlying political questions that are unresolved, as well as working with neighboring states in Africa who are going to be able to commit resources to help keep the peace in Mali in the aftermath of the French-led operation," he said.

Biden's last stop will be in London, where he will meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nicholas Clegg February 5 before returning to the United States.

"There again, I would expect the issues to be many of the ones that will be covered in meetings with Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande, including Syria, Afghanistan, North Africa, Iran and the economic relationship between the United States and Europe," Blinken said.

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