ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland – Cast as the outlier of the Group of Eight leaders by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the eve of their meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin is not wavering in his seemingly unshakable support for the Syrian regime.
Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama both admitted Monday that their two countries do not see eye-to-eye on the deepening crisis in Syria that has so far killed at least 93,000 people and wounded countless others.
Looking sombre as they sat across from each other following their meeting on the sidelines of the G8, both men agreed to push for negotiations to quell the violence and restore a modicum of peace and stability to a country that for two years now has been ripped apart by civil war.
“Of course our opinions do not coincide,” Putin said through a translator.
“But all of us have the intention to stop the violence in Syria and to stop the growth of victims and to solve the situation peacefully, including by bringing the parties to the negotiating table in Geneva. We agreed to push the parties to the negotiating table.”
Talks aimed at ending the conflict are expected to be held next month in Switzerland. Obama, too, said a negotiated settlement remains the preferred option.
“We do have different perspectives on the problem, but we share an interest in reducing the violence, securing chemical weapons and ensuring they are neither used or are they subject to proliferation, and that we want to try to resolve the issue through political means, if possible,” the U.S. president said.
“And so we have instructed out teams to continue to work on the potential of a Geneva follow-up to the first meeting.”
Tensions have escalated in the past week since the United States announced it would supply weapons and ammunition to the Syrian opposition after it found proof the regime of President Bashar Assad attacked its foes with chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin.
Russia — one of four G8 members that has a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council — has been highly critical of the U.S. move to arm the rebels. The Russians have also scoffed at U.S. claims about the use of chemical weapons, saying they’re based on flimsy evidence.
Assad told a German newspaper Europe faces dire consequences if rebels are supplied with weapons.
“If the Europeans deliver weapons, then Europe’s backyard will become terrorist, and Europe will pay the price for it,” the Syrian president is quoted as saying in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
The biggest challenge facing the other G8 leaders at this meeting at the lakeside Lough Erne resort in Northern Ireland is how to persuade Putin to drop his support for the Assad regime.
Harper, who spoke to Canadian journalists in Dublin ahead of the G8, said he does not expect Putin to change his tune at the two-day summit.
The widening chasm between Putin and the rest of the G8 leaders was laid bare when Harper all but called Putin the pariah of the group when it comes to Syria.
“Look, I think that dialogue will be interesting. I think it’s important to have that kind of dialogue. But I don’t think we should fool ourselves. This is G7 plus one. OK, let’s be blunt. That’s what this is, G7 plus one,” Harper said Sunday.
“We in the West have a very different perspective on this situation. Mr. Putin and his government are supporting the thugs of the Assad regime for their own reasons that I do not think are justifiable, and Mr. Putin knows my view on that.
“But we will not, unless there’s a big shift of position on his part, we’re not going to get a common position with him at the G8.”
On Monday, the White House announced a U.S.-Russia summit will be held in Moscow in early September ahead of the Group of 20 meetings in St. Petersburg.
If this G8 meeting is any indication, those G20 talks in Russia are shaping up to be a strained affair.
At a leaders’ dinner Monday evening, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta sat between Harper and Putin, according to the Prime Minister’s Office. The Canadian and Russian leaders are not scheduled to hold one-on-one meetings at the G8 summit.
Two senior Canadian government officials, who spoke to journalists on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said Putin can expect an earful from the rest of the G8.
“It won’t be an easy discussion,” one of the officials said.
“They get heated sometimes,” added the second official, “particularly on these kinds of issues.”
They also underscored what’s at stake in these closed-door talks.
“It’s part of the ebb and flow of the G8,” the second official said. “You know, we had a different position from Russia on Libya and yet we managed to have that discussion and I think the value of the G8 is the small format.
“Leaders can have frank discussions behind closed doors. So this is not the first time it’s happened where there’s been a core difference of opinion among G8 members. You’re right, this one’s serious. So was Libya.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron, the host of this year’s G8 summit, said Monday he hopes to narrow the gap between Putin and the other leaders.
The Harper government, meanwhile, announced Monday that Canada would give $90 million in new humanitarian assistance to Syria this year. That’s on top of $100 million announced on Sunday to help Jordan cope with the fallout from the Syrian conflict.