- The Washington Times - Monday, June 17, 2013

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.

But the proposed free trade deal, along with all other topics up for discussion, is taking a clear back seat to Syria and shining a spotlight on Russia’s continued backing of the Assad regime.

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.

Mr. Putin echoed those sentiments, making clear that the two nations’ positions on Syria “do not coincide,” but said he and Mr. Obama agreed to “push the parties to the negotiations table.”

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.

Mr. Harper blasted Mr. Putin for backing “the thugs of the Assad regime” and dismissed Russia’s involvement in the summit.

“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.

“If the Europeans ship weapons, Europe’s backyard becomes a terrorists’ place,” he said. “Terrorists will return to Europe with fighting experience and extremist ideologies.”

The G-8 meeting will continue through Tuesday, and Syria is expected to remain at the top of the agenda even though a shared position on Syria among the eight nations — the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Russia — almost certainly will not materialize.

Mr. Obama made his first public comments of the week Monday morning at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall, where he called the 15-year peace that has settled over Northern Ireland after decades of sectarian civil war “proof of what is possible” and an example of hope to other nations embroiled in conflict.

He said Northern Ireland represents a blueprint for how peace, however fragile, can be achieved and that it can be maintained only through courage.

“Whenever your peace is attacked, you will have to choose whether to respond with the same bravery that you’ve summoned so far or whether you succumb to the worst instincts, those impulses that kept this great land divided for too long. You’ll have to choose whether to keep going forward, not backward,” Mr. Obama said.

He threw his weight behind a plan to take apart all of Northern Ireland’s “peace lines” that divide Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods and are designed to suppress religious tensions.

“If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden — that, too, encourages division. It discourages cooperation,” Mr. Obama said.

After the G-8 summit, the president will travel to Germany and deliver a speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.

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