Putin cast as outlier of G8 on Syria as two days of meetings kick off

ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland – If this G8 meeting if any indication, the next gathering of world leaders in Russia is shaping up to be a strained affair.

A chasm has emerged between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the rest of the Group of Eight leaders over the deepening crisis in Syria.

That division was laid bare on Sunday night when Prime Minister Stephen Harper called Putin, who hosts the G20 summit in St. Petersburg in September, the outlier of the G8.

How to persuade Putin to drop his seemingly unshakable support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is the main challenge facing the other leaders at this meeting at the lakeside Lough Erne resort in Northern Ireland.

The bloody Syrian conflict has now raged for two years and at least 93,000 people have died.

Tensions escalated last week after the United States announced it would begin arming opponents of Assad’s regime.

Russia — which is in the G8 and has a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council — has been highly critical of the U.S. move to give weapons and ammunition to the 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,” a Reuters report quoted Putin 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.

Russia has steadfastly stuck with the Syrian regime even as the United States claims to have proof that forces loyal to Assad have used chemical weapons. Russian officials have dismissed those claims, saying they’re based on flimsy evidence

Harper — speaking on the eve of the summit — said Putin is unlikely to drop his support for Assad at this gathering of the leaders of the world’s eight wealthiest countries.

In doing so, Harper all but called Putin the pariah of the G8 when it comes to Syria.

“Look, I think that dialogue will be interesting. I think it’s important to have that kind of dialogue,” Harper said Sunday night in Dublin. “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.

“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.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday said he hoped to narrow the gap between Putin and the other leaders over the course of the two-day summit.

Two senior Canadian government officials, who spoke to journalists on the condition their names not be published, 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.”

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.