Kerry in London to start first official tour

John Kerry will push his Russian counterpart to apply pressure on Syria when they meet during the new US Secretary of State's marathon tour of allies in Europe and the Middle East that began in London on Sunday.

Kerry's get-acquainted tour will include meetings with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague on Monday and visits to Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

He will meet Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Berlin on Tuesday with Syria top of the agenda, according to a senior State Department official on board the aircraft carrying Kerry's delegation.

"We feel that Russia can play a key role in convincing the (Syrian) regime that there is need for political transition," said the official, while playing down hopes of a breakthrough.

He is also expected to address issues including Iran, Mali and North Korea during his two-week tour.

Kerry's decision to make his first trip to Europe, unlike predecessor Hillary Clinton who chose to tour countries in Asia and the Pacific, sends a strong signal to America's closest European partners, said the official.

"The Secretary is very pleased to be able to do this first foreign trip with these key European partners," stressed the official.

"I think it's a real reflection on the degree to which we coordinate our global cooperation with these key partners," he added.

After talks with Cameron, the former presidential candidate will meet with Hague and hold his first news conference of the tour before leaving for Berlin late Monday.

The visit sees Kerry, the son of a diplomat, back on familiar ground. He spent part of his childhood in Berlin, has family in France and is a keen supporter of strong trans-Atlantic ties.

The relationship was boosted 10 days ago when President Barack Obama announced that negotiations had started between the US and the European Union to create a massive free trade zone.

"The British have been very supportive of this and other Europeans are very enthusiastic as well," said the official.

But he warned the US had "no illusions about the difficulties and the obstacles" facing the zone's creation.

The conflict in Syria will crop up throughout Kerry's trip. A senior US administration official travelling with the secretary on Sunday urged the opposition not to boycott international talks in Rome on Thursday.

"We are stressing... that they (the opposition) have an opportunity in Rome, to see the countries that have been their greatest supporters and to present to all of us how they see the situation on the ground in security, humanitarian, political and economic terms," said the official.

"This meeting is also an opportunity for them to meet our new secretary of state and to speak directly to him," he added.

Syria will also dominate Kerry's talks in Ankara and Cairo, where he is due to meet with Secretary General of the Arab League, Nabil al-Arabi.

"Obviously we would welcome it if the Arab league and the leaders of the Syrian opposition Coalition were willing to move forward," explained the State Department official.

The Kerry-Lavrov meeting on February 26 will run at the same time as talks in Kazakhstan between the so-called 5+1 world powers (US, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany) and Iran over the issue of Tehran's nuclear policy.

Washington welcomed the "common" position among the group.

Kerry arrives in Paris on Wednesday for talks with French President Francois Hollande and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

The issues of Mali -- where the Americans are providing logistical support to French forces -- Iran, Syria and North Korea will be on the agenda, according to officials of both countries.