ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland — Hunting for a glimmer of common ground, the leaders of major economic powers are declaring themselves dedicated to a political solution to Syria’s bloody civil war, even as President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin stake out diametrically opposite stands on which side deserves military support.
Ahead of a Group of Eight joint statement on Syria to be issued Tuesday, the U.S. remained committed to Obama’s recent decision to arm the rebels and Russia did not budge from its weapons sales to President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Yet even as Obama found common ground among European allies against Putin at a G-8 summit in Northern Ireland, the U.S. president also struggled to convince some of those same allies to join him in sending armaments to the Syrian opposition.
Syria, where at least 93,000 people have been killed in the conflict, has emerged as one of the intractable issues at the G-8 in Northern Ireland, where leaders of eight of the wealthiest economies gathered at a gleaming lakeside golf resort to hash over trade, tax and foreign policy challenges.
“Of course, our opinions do not coincide, 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,” Putin said after meeting for two hours with Obama. “We agreed to push the parties to the negotiations table.”
“We do have differing perspectives on the problem,” Obama concurred. “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.”
In an interview on PBS that was taped Sunday and aired late Monday, Obama was much blunter, and pessimistic.
“What’s been clear is that Assad, at this point — in part, because of his support from Iran and from Russia — believes that he does not have to engage in a political transition, believes that he can continue to simply violently suppress over half of the population,” Obama told interviewer Charlie Rose. “And as long as he’s got that mindset, it’s going to be very difficult to resolve the situation there.”
Even so, Obama in the interview portrayed himself as a reluctant participant in the civil war.
“We know what it’s like to rush into a war in the Middle East without having thought it through,” he said in obvious reference to the war in Iraq.
British officials said Cameron was looking for consensus among the G-8 members on five areas of potential agreement that could win Russian support, including securing chemical weapons, pursuing extremists and creating an executive authority for Syria after it undergoes a political transition.
But despite their shared belief that Assad must leave power, the U.S., Britain and France were also showing cracks in their unity. 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.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, downplayed those differences, saying the Syrian opposition could be strengthened either politically, through humanitarian aid or as a military force.
“Different nations are going to feed into that process in different ways,” he said.
The G-8 leaders capped the day Monday with a dinner at a lakeside lodge, where Syria was to be the main subject as they dined on Kilkeel crab, prawn and avocado salad, followed by roast fillet and braised shin of Kettyle beef with violet artichokes. Dessert was Bushmills whiskey custard.
The sensitive Syria discussions unfolded in the midst of awkward revelations that the British eavesdropping agency GCHQ tapped into the communications of foreign diplomats during the 2009 Group of 20 summit in London, including those of Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev. That report, in the newspaper The Guardian, came on the heels of reports about the high-tech surveillance methods and record-gathering employed by the National Security Agency in the United States.
While the disclosures added a layer of controversy to the summit, U.S. officials said heads of state at a summit like the G-8 are perfectly aware that such spying goes on. As for the issue coming up in talks with Putin, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters, “It was a non-event at this meeting.”
Indeed, in his interview with PBS, Obama made it clear such eavesdropping is commonplace, and tried to distinguish it from the cyber-hacking his administration has accused China of carrying out.
“There is a big difference between China wanting to figure out how can they find out what my talking points are when I’m meeting with the Japanese, which is standard fare, and we try to prevent them from penetrating that, and they try to get that information,” he said. “There’s a big difference between that and a hacker directly connected with the Chinese government or the Chinese military breaking into Apple’s software systems to see if they can obtain the designs for the latest Apple product. That’s theft.”
It was a remarkably direct accusation coming just a week after Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in a desert resort in California.
“We had a very blunt conversation about cybersecurity,” Obama said of his talks with Xi.
With Putin, Obama also tried to emphasize their areas of cooperation, including an extension of a 1992 agreement designed to curtail the spread of nuclear weapons. The agreement resolved Russian concerns that the original post-Soviet pact, named after Senate sponsors Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican Richard Lugar, was too intrusive in securing material from Russia. Rhodes said the deal allows both countries to cooperate on nuclear security in the U.S. and Russia, but also in other countries. Obama is likely to draw attention to the deal in a speech Wednesday in Berlin.
Still, relations between Obama and Putin have never been warm. Rhodes called the encounter between the two “businesslike,” one made even more stilted through translation.
Obama tried to leaven their joint appearance before reporters at the end of their talks by observing that “we compared notes on President Putin’s expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball. And we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover.”
Putin, through an interpreter, replied, “The President wants to relax me with his statement of age.”