President Barack Obama will sound out western allies this week on how far to go to intervene in Syria’s civil war and find out how determined Russia is to stand in the way.
Leaders of the Group of Eight industrial nations begin a two-day summit today in Northern Ireland as the Syrian army, strengthened by reinforcements from Lebanon’s Shiite militia Hezbollah and aid from Iran and Russia, mounts an offensive to retake Aleppo, the nation’s commercial center and largest city.
Obama last week ratcheted up backing for the rebels with a decision to send light weapons. On the sidelines of the summit, he will consult on next steps with European leaders including British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande, who both have sought bolder action in Syria, said Andrew Tabler, a Middle East analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“They’re going to work out the sophistication of the weapons, and they’ll continue to look at that in the future,” Tabler said. “The rebels want shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons. They want anti-tank weapons. Are they going to get them?”
The shift in advantage on Syria’s battlegrounds from rebels to President Bashar al-Assad’s loyalists, driven in part by the influx of Hezbollah fighters, will be a main topic in discussions among leaders at the summit.
The maneuvering on Syria may overshadow a summit agenda that includes limiting nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, managing the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, stabilizing Libya, expanding international trade and restraining tax avoidance.
The G-8 comprises leaders from the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Russia.
The U.S. announcement that it would send direct military aid to the rebels “was left deliberately vague” on the extent of support, said Faysal Itani, a fellow with the Atlantic Council. European allies as well Russian President Vladimir Putin, an Assad backer, will use bilateral meetings with Obama to gain greater clarity on his intentions, he said.
“We’ve made no decision to arm the rebels, to arm the opposition, but it’s very important that we continue to work with them, train them and assist them,” Cameron said yesterday in London at a briefing with Putin after the two leaders met.
Putin said both sides in the civil war have “blood on their hands” and rejected criticism. “Russia supplies arms to the legitimate government of Syria according to international law,” he said. “We breach nothing. And we call on our partners to act the same way.”
The Syrian rebels’ Supreme Military Command, headed by Major General Salim Idris, has pleaded for heavy arms that go beyond the light weapons such as machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades that the U.S. is preparing to furnish.
The Obama administration is still debating internally whether to provide heavier weapons amid concerns that the material could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists, said a U.S. official familiar with the discussions. The official said Obama authorized providing small arms under a classified order instructing the Central Intelligence Agency to arrange delivery.
Ben Rhodes, an Obama deputy national security adviser, said that because of the “fluid situation” in Syria, the president will “consult with all the leaders” at the summit about “the types of support we’re providing the opposition.”
British and French leaders are likely to press Obama to move on to “the next pressure point” and enforce at least a partial no-fly zone over southern Syria, Itani said.
As with the uprising in Libya, in which Britain and France also pressed the U.S. to escalate involvement, European nations are closer to the conflict and more vulnerable should the impact of a worsening refugee crisis, Tabler said.
“We have half of the Syrian population on the move,” he said. “We haven’t seen anything like that since Bosnia. The neighboring countries can’t take that.”
Most Americans oppose intervening in Syria, according to recent polls. In an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released June 5, 15 percent of respondents advocated taking military action, and 11 percent supported sending arms to rebels. A plurality of those polled, 42 percent, favor only humanitarian assistance to the Syrian opposition. The poll surveyed 1,000 people from May 30 to June 2 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Obama will have his first one-on-one meeting with Putin at the meeting since the Group of 20 summit in Mexico a year ago. The Russian response to the U.S. president’s decision to arm rebels is likely to be “outright hostility,” Itani said.
Still, the limits Obama has placed on military aid to the rebels sends a signal to Putin, said Jon Wolfsthal, former special adviser to Vice President Biden for nuclear security and nonproliferation.
The message, Wolfsthal said, is “we’re not doing all we can, we do need your cooperation to make sure the Syrian situation doesn’t get even worse, and there’s still ground for cooperation.”
Putin’s foreign policy aide, Yuri Ushakov, disputed an Obama administration declaration that Assad had crossed the president’s “red line” by using chemical weapons, telling reporters in Moscow that the assertion was “unconvincing.” He said efforts to convene a peace conference on Syria next month may be in jeopardy if Obama “hardens” the U.S. stance on the conflict and arms the rebels.
Caroline Atkinson, Obama’s special assistant for international economic affairs, said leaders at the summit will also discuss a transatlantic trade pact the U.S. and European Union are preparing to negotiate.
The agenda also includes steps to combat illegal tax evasion and legal tax avoidance through profit-shifting among countries, she said. Obama will push for increasing international disclosure requirements for individuals and institutions, she said.
Cameron is also proposing governments take steps to make it easier for tax authorities and law enforcement to identify the real owners of shell companies that are sometimes set up to hide assets and evade taxes, she said.
Before the summit in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, Obama told students at Belfast’s Waterfront Convention Center that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which helped end decades of sectarian strife between Catholics and Protestants, has made the province “an example for those who seek a peace of their own.”
First Lady Michelle Obama and the president’s daughters, Malia and Sasha, accompanied him to Belfast and are traveling on to Dublin, Ireland. Their itinerary includes a tour of Trinity College, Ireland’s oldest university, and archives the college has gathered “that document the Obamas’ Irish ancestry,” Rhodes said. They will also attend a performance of Celtic dance company Riverdance.