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Middle East tensions to dominate new Kerry trip

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks in Washington October 24, 2013
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks in Washington October 24, 2013

US Secretary of State John Kerry is heading back to the Middle East as efforts to hold Syria peace talks bog down, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations stumble and rare tensions with key ally Saudi Arabia flare into the open.

With the Obama administration taking fire at home and abroad for what is perceived to be its indecisive Syria policy and Arab unease about its outreach to Iran, Kerry is hitting the road again seeking to ease tensions and soothe allies vital to its Middle East ambitions.

After less than two weeks at home, the top US diplomat can expect some tough behind-the-scenes talks as he travels from Riyadh to Jerusalem, Amman and the Gulf as well as north Africa.

The November 3 to 11 trip will take in Saudi Arabia, Poland, Israel, Bethlehem, Amman, Abu Dhabi, Algeria and Morocco.

First stop will be Riyadh for talks on Sunday with King Abdullah amid tensions with the Gulf Kingdom.

Kerry "will reaffirm the strategic nature of the US-Saudi relationship given the importance of the work between our two countries on shared challenges," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement Thursday.

Ties have strained in recent months with Saudi Arabia over Washington's policy on the conflict in Syria and moves for a rapprochement with Riyadh's arch-foe Iran to rein in its suspect nuclear program.

In an unprecedented move, Riyadh earlier this month turned down a coveted non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in protest at the world body's failure to end the 31-month war in Syria which has left over 115,000 dead.

Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud reportedly told diplomats in Riyadh last week that he would scale back Saudi cooperation with the CIA on training Syrian rebels, and work with other allies including Jordan and France.

Bandar was cited by the Wall Street Journal as saying that the decision over the UN Security Council seat was a "message for the US, not the UN."

Kerry, along with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, has been working for months to try to convene peace talks in Geneva slated for November, aimed at bringing together the Syrian regime and the opposition to chart a path to a transition of power.

But efforts have stalled as the key blocs of the opposition have refused to sit down at the negotiating table with representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Republican lawmakers reacted to the news out of Riyadh with alarm on Sunday saying the administration had to work swiftly to repair ties.

Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham also lashed out at President Barack Obama's "abdication of a leadership role" in the Middle East, saying he was "failing" US interests in the troubled region.

"The United States is experiencing a serious failure of policy and loss of credibility in the Middle East," they wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post, adding that events in the region "are headed in a perilous direction."

Kerry will also seek to bring fresh impetus to Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, amid accusations from the Palestinians this week that Israel is working "to wreck" the talks by approving 1,500 new settler homes in east Jerusalem.

He will also discuss the new nuclear talks being led with Iran by six western powers, including the United States.

Israel and the United States are at odds over the strategy of engaging Iran, with US officials insisting that diplomatic overtures by the new Iranian leadership need exploring, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu steadfastly warning that Tehran's new dialogue is just a ploy to win sanctions relief.

Both the peace talks and Iran issues, as well as the massive humanitarian crisis caused by the Syrian conflict, will likely figure high on Kerry's agenda in his talks in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

"In Warsaw, Secretary Kerry will meet with senior Polish officials to discuss our close defense alliance and partnership with Poland across a range of global issues, as well as Poland’s key contributions on democracy promotion and in enhancing NATO capabilities," Psaki said.

And in Algiers he will meet top Algerian officials and chair a US-Algeria strategic dialogue marking "the growing partnership between the United States and Algeria," Psaki said, adding he will then head to Rabat also for talks with the north African kingdom.