Obama and Putin at odds over Syria after cool exchange at G8 summit
Prospects of agreement between Moscow and Washington on how to end the war in Syria looked as remote as ever on Monday after a chilly bilateral meeting between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin ended with a stiff exchange of diplomatic pleasantries.
President Obama said the talks, on the fringes of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, had been “very useful”, but both sides acknowledged disagreements over whether President Assad should step down and if rebel groups should receive arms from the west.
President Putin agreed that Russia and the US would continue to push the warring parties in Syria to the negotiating table.
“Of course, our opinions do not coincide,” said Putin. “But all of us have the intention to stop the violence in Syria, to stop the growth of victims, and to solve the situation peacefully, including by bringing the parties to the negotiations table in Geneva.”
Russia’s failure to respond positively to US claims of chemical weapons use in Syria and its hostile response to Obama’s plan to give military support to rebel groups means the two leaders remain deeply divided.
Speaking after the meeting, Obama said: “With respect to Syria, we do have differing perspectives on the problem, but we share an interest in reducing the violence; securing chemical weapons and ensuring that they’re neither used nor are they subject to proliferation; and that we want to try to resolve the issue through political means, if possible.”
It had been hoped the meeting might be an opportunity to “reset” deteriorating relations between Moscow and Washington, but the gulf of opinion on Syria, and Russian anger over recent US surveillance revelations, was followed by noticeably stiff body language between the two leaders.
Both countries concluded the bilateral by issuing a joint statementreaffirming “their readiness to intensify bilateral cooperation based on the principles of mutual respect, equality, and genuine respect for each other’s interests”.
They also announced plans for a cold war style hotline to deal with any outbreak of cyber attacks. It would “create a mechanism for informationsharing in order to better protect critical information systems, we have established a communication channel and information sharing arrangements between our computer emergency response teams,” said the joint statement.
“You will not deny that one does not really need to support the people who not only kill their enemies, but open up their bodies, eat their intestines in front of the public and cameras,” said Putin. “Are these the people you want to support? Is it them who you want to supply with weapons? Then this probably has little relation to humanitarian values that have been preached in Europe for hundreds of years.”
However, Britain and the US believe it is still possible to press Putin to agree to some joint principles on Syria and so open the way for a second peace conference in Geneva, possibly in July.
“This is a potentially clarifying moment on Syria: a moment to search out whether there is common ground, and the basis for a political settlement,” British officials said at the summit.
Their Syrian plan includes improved humanitarian assistance and access within Syria; tackling jihadist extremism within the rebel movement; and an acknowledgment that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable – ideally coupled with agreement that these have been deployed by the Assad regime. The plan also proposes “day one planning” for a new Syrian regime and finally transition to a new government with executive authority.
However, Putin has insisted that Assad is the legitimate leader of the Syrian regime, although he is likely to find himself isolated in that view at the G8. Some diplomatic sources were suggesting the seven other members of the G8 – including Germany, France, Japan, Italy and Canada – will put out their owncommuniqué today if the Russian leader refuses to acknowledge that Assad has to abandon leadership.
The future of Assad was the single biggest stumbling block to an agreement at the initial Geneva peace conference held last year.
In a sign of the tensions, the French president, François Hollande, criticised Russia for sending weapons to Assad’s forces and considering deliveries of a sophisticated missile system. “How can we allow that Russia continues to deliver arms to the Assad regime when the opposition receives very few – and is being massacred?” he said.
Assad warned that Europe will pay the price if it delivers arms to the rebels. “If the Europeans deliver weapons, the backyard of Europe will become terrorist, and Europe will pay the price for it,” he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.