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Syria’s civil war

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The horrific bombing that killed more than 70 people in the Syrian capital of Damascus Thursday makes the Syrian civil war the top priority for Secretary of State John Kerry on his first foreign trip, particularly in meetings with his Russian counterpart.

In a display of their own power, Syrian insurgents in the nearly two-year-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad set off three car bombs in the middle of the capital, a stronghold of President Assad. The bombs were detonated near the headquarters of his ruling party and the Russian embassy and two other sites in the city. Heavy mortar fire also hit the army’s central command. The bombs were part of a rebel offensive against Damascus that began in July.

An estimated 70,000 people have died since the insurgency began in March 2011.

Mr. Kerry leaves today on what has been called a listening tour of nine countries in Europe and the Middle East. He is expected to meet with Syrian opposition leaders, but the most important meeting of the trip may come Tuesday when he is scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Berlin. Syria will be the top priority.

Russia has been the leading backer of President Assad in resisting calls for him to step down and clear the way for a transition government. The administration has rebuffed calls for U.S. intervention in the fighting. President Obama rejected proposals from the CIA, State Department and Pentagon to arm some rebels over fear that U.S. weapons could find their way into militants’ hands. There is no indication he is willing to change that policy.

The administration has imposed sanctions against the Assad regime and provided humanitarian and nonlethal assistance to the rebels. Beyond that there is little support for direct U.S. involvement.

Mr. Kerry has said he wants to change President Assad’s “current perception” of his situation, which may depend on Russia. Mr. Kerry said he had a “good sense” of what he might propose to accomplish that, but he did not provide specifics nor indicate any change in President Obama’s policy toward Syria.

Russia has been the major supporter of President Assad. The administration says Moscow has been providing arms to the Assad government. Russia has also vetoed U.N. sanctions and resolutions condemning the regime and rejected opposition demands for President Assad’s resignation before any transition talks take place.

Mr. Kerry said he was “hopeful that there may be an equation where the Russians and United States could, in fact, find more common ground than we have yet.”

Part of the common ground will be persuading Russia to cooperate with international attempts to convince President Assad to step down.

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