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Syria's civil war splits G-8 summit

President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Monday, June 17, 2013. Obama and Putin discussed the ongoing conflict in Syria during their bilateral meeting.

Associated Press

President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Monday, June 17, 2013. Obama and Putin discussed the ongoing conflict in Syria during their bilateral meeting.

ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland — Deep differences over Syria's fierce civil war clouded a summit of world leaders Monday, with Russian President Vladimir Putin defiantly rejecting calls from the U.S., Britain and France to halt his political and military support for Syrian leader Bashar Assad's regime.

But there were also fissures among the three Western nations, despite their shared belief that Assad must leave power. Britain and France appear unwilling — at least for now — to join President Barack Obama in arming the Syrian rebels, a step the U.S. president reluctantly finalized last week.

The Group of 8 industrial nations opened their summit Monday at a lakeside resort in Northern Ireland. The lack of consensus even among allies underscored the vexing nature of the two-year conflict in Syria, where at least 93,000 people have been killed as rebels struggle to overtake Assad forces buttressed by support from Hezbollah, Iran and Russia.

Obama and Putin, who already have a frosty relationship, did little to hide their differing views on the matter while speaking to reporters following a one-on-one meeting on the sidelines of the summit Monday evening. The two-hour meeting marked the first time the leaders have met in-person since last year.

"We do have different perspectives on the problem," Obama said plainly of their divergent views on Syria.

The Russian leader, speaking through a translator, agreed, saying, "our opinions do not coincide."

Despite their seemingly intractable differences, Obama and Putin did express a shared desire to stop the violence in Syria and convene a political conference in Geneva, Switzerland, next month. But it's unclear who would participate in such a meeting or whether the rebels, given their weakened position, would have any leverage if they did.

U.S. officials say Obama's decision to send the rebels weapons and ammunition for the first time was an attempt to increase their military strength in order to bolster their political bargaining power. But the American inventory for the rebels is not yet expected to include the high-powered weaponry sought by the opposition, raising questions about whether the deepening U.S. involvement will be effective in changing the situation on the ground.

The White House also announced Monday an additional $300 million in humanitarian aid for Syria and neighboring countries absorbing refugees escaping the violence. The new money brings to $800 million the total U.S. humanitarian assistance, according to the White House.

Obama's decision to arm the rebels coincided with the White House's announcement last week that it had definitive evidence of multiple instances of chemical weapons use by Assad's regime against the opposition. Britain and France have also accused Assad of using the deadly agent sarin, while Russia has publicly questioned the credibility of chemical weapons evidence.

"It's necessary to refrain from unproven claims by either party," Putin adviser Alexei Kvasov told reporters at the summit. "We have no evidence proving it."

Moscow's continued support for Assad is based in part on Russia's deep economic and military ties with his regime. Last month, Russia acknowledged it has agreed to sell Syria advanced S-300 air-defense missiles, which are considered to be the cutting edge in aircraft interception technology.

The Russian president's divisions with Western leaders on Syria were also on display in his separate meetings with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande. Both European leaders have previously indicated a willingness to arm vetted Syrian rebels and successfully pushed for the European Union to allow an arms embargo preventing the flow of weapons to expire.

Still, neither country is yet to join Obama in arming the opposition. Following the U.S. decision, there has been growing public concern in both countries over the wisdom of delivering weapons to a country where groups affiliated with al-Qaida are supporting elements of the rebellion.

While Putin did not publicly criticize the U.S. decision to arm the opposition during his meeting with Obama, he exhibited far less restraint Sunday after his meeting with Cameron.

"One hardly should back those who kill their enemies and, you know, eat their organs," he said, referencing a gruesome Internet video purportedly showing a rebel commander committing an act of cannibalism.

Trade negotiations planned

The European Union and the United States will open negotiations next month on a long-sought deal to create free trade between the world's two mightiest economic regions, an effort designed to create millions of jobs that could take years to transform from dream to reality. EU and U.S. leaders announced the plans Monday at the start of the G-8 summit of wealthy nations in Northern Ireland.

"America and Europe have done extraordinary things before and I believe we can forge an economic alliance as strong as our diplomatic and security alliances, which of course are the most powerful in history," President Barack Obama declared alongside EU leaders and the British host, Prime Minister David Cameron.

What is the Group of 8 summit?

Since 1975, the heads of the major industrial democracies have been meeting annually. They are: France, United States, United Kingdom, Russia (as of 2006), Germany, Japan, Italy and Canada.

Associated Press, G8 Research Group

Syria's civil war splits G-8 summit 06/17/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 18, 2013 1:00am]
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