By DON MELVIN and MATTHEW LEE
Greek Foreign Minister Dimitrios Avramopoulos, left, talks with Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu, during a NATO foreign ministers meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Tuesday, April 23, 2013. NATO foreign ministers meet in Brussels to discuss the situation in Syria and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)
BRUSSELS (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday urged NATO to prepare for the possible use of chemical weapons by Syria and called for alliance members to boost their assistance to the Syrian opposition.
Attending his first meeting of the alliance’s governing body, the North Atlantic Council, as America’s top diplomat, Kerry said contingency plans should be put in place to guard against the threat of a chemical weapons strike. NATO ally Turkey borders Syria and would be most at-risk from such an attack. NATO has already deployed Patriot missile batteries in Turkey.
“Planning regarding Syria, such as what (NATO) has already done, is an appropriate undertaking for the alliance,” Kerry told NATO foreign ministers. “We should also carefully and collectively consider how NATO is prepared to respond to protect its members from a Syrian threat, including any potential chemical weapons threat.”
Speaking at a news conference after the meeting, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen noted that “the situation in Syria has dramatically deteriorated” and “continues to pose a threat to regional stability.”
He said the alliance is “extremely concerned about the use of ballistic missiles in Syria and the possible use of chemical weapons.” But, he also noted that NATO has not yet been asked to intervene.
“There is no call for NATO to play a role, but if these challenges remain unaddressed they could directly affect our own security,” he told reporters. “So we will continue to remain extremely vigilant.”
Earlier Tuesday, an Israeli general said that Israel believes the Assad regime has used chemical weapons in the conflict. Britain and France have made the same claim. American officials say the evidence to date is inconclusive but U.S. President Barack Obama has said the use of such weapons would be a “game changer” and hinted it could draw intervention.
Despite the deterioration in the situation in Syria, NATO officials say there is virtually no chance the alliance will intervene in the bloody civil war. More than 70,000 people have died in the conflict, according to the United Nations.
The violence also has forced more than 1 million Syrians to seek safety abroad, and more are leaving by the day, burdening neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
Kerry said the Obama administration is “looking at every option that could possibly end the violence and usher in a political transition” and that plans need to be made now to ensure that there is no power vacuum when that takes place.
He said that increasing aid to the Syrian National Coalition and its military command, the Supreme Military Council, is critical to that effort.
“I want to urge all of your governments to increase your material and political support to the coalition and the (military council), which share our vision for Syria’s future, and to ensure that all assistance is only funneled through them,” Kerry said.
On Sunday in Turkey, Kerry announced that the U.S. would double its non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, possibly including defensive military supplies for the first time.
Many of NATO’s 28 members also belong to the European Union, which on Monday lifted its oil embargo on Syria to provide more economic support to the rebels and is now considering easing an arms embargo on the country to allow weapons transfers to those fighting the Assad regime.
The United States is not giving the rebels arms and ammunition but is not opposed to others doing so as long as the recipients are fully vetted and the supplies are channeled through the military council.
Kerry did not mention the possible easing of the E.U. arms embargo but he did say that NATO should begin to think about taking on a larger role in planning for a post-Assad Syria, particularly in dealing with the country’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
The NATO ministers on Tuesday were also working on defining how it will support Afghan forces after 2014, when NATO will no longer have a combat role.
With next year’s transition date looming, Kerry will host three-way talks in Brussels on Wednesday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and top Pakistani officials aimed at speeding possible reconciliation talks with the Taliban and improving trust and cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Shortly after the meeting started, the foreign ministers issued a statement condemning “in the strongest possible terms” North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and threatening rhetoric, saying they violated U.N. Security Council resolutions and jeopardized the prospects of lasting peace on the Korean peninsula.
Kerry will also see Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the session. Officials said those talks would likely include a discussion of the ethnic Chechen brothers accused of last week’s Boston Marathon bombings.
Russian authorities — who have long battled an Islamist separatist movement in Chechnya — had alerted U.S. officials to suspected extremist links of the elder brother in 2011, but American investigators decided he was not a threat.