From the moment the Group of Eight summit began, the dividing lines on how to intervene in the Syrian civil war became clear: The U.S. and its European allies on one side, Russia on the other.
Tensions with Russia have gotten the meeting off to a rocky start. Deep disagreements on the conflict have all but guaranteed that the G-8 will not produce a unanimous decision at the resort in Northern Ireland on how, or even whether, to assist rebel forces in their fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and other European leaders tried to turn attention from the rift on Syria to other matters. They held a joint news conference to announce the official start of negotiations on a landmark free trade pact between the U.S. and the European Union, an agreement that each side said would promote prosperity and economic growth on both sides of the Atlantic.
After a closed-door meeting Monday evening, Mr. Obama and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, downplayed differences on how to handle the Syrian civil war and focused instead on areas of agreement.
Both men — meeting face to face for the first time in a year — spoke of shared goals in Syria, such as reducing violence and coming to some type of diplomatic solution that avoids further bloodshed. The conflict has claimed at least 92,000 lives and has included the use of chemical agents such as sarin gas by Mr. Assad’s forces.
“With respect to Syria, we do have differing perspectives on the problem, but we share an interest in reducing violence, securing chemical weapons and ensuring that they’re neither used nor are they subject to proliferation and we want to try to resolve the issue through political means, if possible,” Mr. Obama said after the meeting.
Neither man directly addressed the U.S. decision to send arms and other military supplies to Syrian rebels after confirmation of Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
Russia opposes that policy. It also has vowed to stand in the way of a no-fly zone over Syria, a step pushed by European leaders and by high-profile American political figures such as Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.
Even before the summit began, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggested that Russia’s position on Syria — with which the Kremlin has had a military and political alliance since the Soviet era — should preclude it from even being at the table with other world leaders.
“I don’t think we should fool ourselves. This is the G-7 plus one. Let’s be blunt, that’s what this is: the G-7 plus one,” he said, according to The Toronto Star.
Also Monday, Mr. Assad gave a blunt warning to Mr. Cameron and other European leaders who back the U.S. plan to arm Syrian rebels, some of whom are Islamists allied with al Qaeda and other Sunni terrorist groups and wish to replace Syria’s Alawite-dominated regime with a state based on the strict Islamic Shariah law.
In an interview broadcast on Al-Manar television, Mr. Assad warned that Europe “will pay a price” for delivering weapons to opposition forces.