Harper draws line between Russia's Putin and rest of G8 on Syrian conflict

DUBLIN – When leaders of the world’s eight wealthiest countries meet in Northern Ireland on Monday, it’s pretty clear how Prime Minister Stephen Harper sees the seating arrangements at the leaders’ table.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on one side. Everybody else on the other. At least when it comes to Syria.

On the eve of the G8 summit, while he was in Dublin meeting the Irish prime minister, Harper suggested that trying to get Russia to drop its long-standing support of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is an exercise in futility.

In doing so, the Canadian prime minister effectively drew a sharp line between Putin’s Russia and the rest of the G8.

“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.”

Topping the agenda at the annual meeting of G8 leaders is how to end the bloody conflict that has now raged for two years in Syria.

Tensions escalated this past week after the United States announced it would begin arming opponents of Assad’s regime because it has proof chemical weapons were used against the rebels.

Russia — which is in the G8 and has a permanent seat on the United Nations security council — has dismissed those U.S. claims, saying they’re based on flimsy evidence.

Putin and British Prime Minister David Cameron met Sunday in London ahead of the G8. According to a Reuters report, Putin criticized the West for backing the Syrian rebels.

“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,” Putin is quoted as saying.

“Are these the people you want to support? Are they the ones you want to supply with weapons? Then this probably has little relation to the humanitarian values preached in Europe for hundreds of years.”

Putin was apparently referring to a Syrian rebel commander caught on tape last month cutting into a dead soldier and biting into one of his organs.

Harper said the rest of the G8 and NATO need to find a way to end the Syrian conflict without Russia.

“I think what’s important,” Harper said, “is that we continue to work with our allies in the G7 and in NATO to see how we can move the situation in a positive direction where we get the transition towards a government that is genuinely representative, broadly based, democratic, not a threat to the world and certainly, not embracing of terrorist or extremist elements.”

Earlier Sunday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told CTV and Global News that he is loathe to criticize the U.S. for arming the rebels, and he expressed confidence the Americans will be careful about who they give weapons to.

But Harper ruled out — for now — Canada arming the rebels.

“We are not, in Canada at the present time, we are not contemplating arming the opposition in Syria,” Harper said.

“I understand — fully understand — why our allies would do that, particularly given recent actions by Russia, Iran and others. But our aid, at the present time and our aid for now, will continue to be humanitarian aid.”