President Barack Obama and European allies moved to further isolate Russian president Vladimir Putin for supporting the regime in Syria even as the leaders sought a way to push both sides in that nation’s civil war into talks.
“Of course, our opinions do not coincide, but all of us have the intention to stop the violence in Syria,” Putin said yesterday after meeting with Obama on the sidelines of a summit in Northern Ireland.
“We do have differing perspectives,” Obama said, adding that “we share an interest in reducing the violence.”
In a public split rare at global summits, some western leaders gathered for the Group of Eight industrial nations publicly rebuked Putin for backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a bloody conflict that has killed more than 93,000 people. A British official, who asked not to be identified, called the event a clarifying moment in differences over Syria.
Even as the White House’s decision last week to send small arms to Syrian rebels deepened differences with Putin, Obama stressed “a careful, calibrated” approach to U.S. involvement in the conflict during an interview aired last night on PBS’s “The Charlie Rose Show.”
“It is very easy to slip-slide your way into deeper and deeper commitments,” Obama said, defending himself against critics who have urged more aggressive action such as imposing a no-fly zone or supplying heavy arms to the Syrian opposition. “Until Assad is defeated, in this view it’s never going to be enough, right?”
Among other topics for the G-8 leaders in Enniskillen was the surprise victory of Hassan Rohani in Iran’s presidential elections over the weekend. The president-elect has pledged since the vote to ease his country’s isolation and make the Islamic republic’s disputed nuclear program more transparent.
Rohani’s election “says the Iranian people want to move in a different direction,” Obama said in the PBS interview, recorded June 16. “Clearly you have a hunger within Iran to engage with the international community in a more positive way.”
Obama expressed optimism that the election may open the way for negotiations to end the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, which the U.S. and its allies say will lead to development of a nuclear weapon. Rohani takes office in August.
Obama and his aides also continued to deal with fallout from the disclosures by a former government contractor about classified National Security Agency surveillance programs.
In the PBS interview, Obama said that U.S. intelligence officials are in the process of determining “how much of this we can declassify without further compromising the program.”
He sought to assure Americans that the telephone and e-mail surveillance programs targeting terrorists and overseen by a secret court aren’t an undue invasion of average citizens’ privacy. The program has checks and balances because it’s approved by a federal court and overseen by Congress, he said.
Putin and Obama focused on areas of agreement in remarks after meeting, their first one-on-one encounter in a year, offering common views of the Iranian election and stressing joint efforts to combat terrorism.
Obama began his comments by thanking Russia for assistance with the investigation into the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings, in which three people were killed. The suspects are two brothers who were born in parts of the former Soviet Union and emigrated to the U.S. One is in custody, the other was killed in a shootout with police.
Obama and Putin said they would encourage the forces they’re backing in the two-year-old Syrian civil war to begin negotiations planned in Geneva. The two powers are now openly arming opposing sides in the conflict.
The White House, declaring Assad had crossed a “red line” Obama drew by using chemical weapons against rebels, announced last week that the U.S. would begin sending direct military aid to the Syrian opposition. Russia continues to arm Assad, a long-time ally.
European nations, led by France and the U.K. that are participating in the summit, have pressed the U.S. to take stronger action in Syria even as Russia has thwarted efforts in the United Nations to sanction Assad.
French President Francois Hollande, on his arrival at the summit on the shore of Northern Ireland’s Lough Erne, criticized Russia’s backing of Assad.
“How can we allow Russia to continue delivering weapons to the Assad regime when the opposition receives very few and is today massacred?” Hollande said. “How can we allow that there is now proof of chemical weapons -- to which extent we don’t yet know, but they have been used -- without there being unanimous condemnation from the international community and the G-8?”
Putin dismissed such sentiment in comments June 16 after a meeting with Cameron in London.
Both sides in the civil war have “blood on their hands,” Putin said. “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.”
Assad warned in an interview with a German newspaper that Europe will “pay the price” for arming rebels in future terrorist attacks.
The Syrian president told Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in an interview in Damascus that rebels will export “terrorists” back to Europe. He denied using chemical weapons to attack enemies in the civil war.
The Syrian army, strengthened by reinforcements from Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah militia and aid from Iran and Russia, has seized the initiative on the battlefield from opposition forces. As the G-8 leaders met, forces loyal to Assad were mounting an offensive to retake Aleppo, the nation’s commercial center and largest city.
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 debating 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 who asked not to be identified. The official said Obama authorized providing small arms under a classified order instructing the Central Intelligence Agency to arrange delivery.
Russian officials continue to question U.S. and European assertions of proof that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons.
“There are too many emotions around Syrian issue,” Alexey Kvasov, a senior Kremlin official, told reporters. While agreeing that the use of chemical weapons “is not acceptable,” he said there isn’t sufficient proof to lay blame.
Russia will work with other members of the G-8 to form a joint position on Syria, Kvasov said.
Cameron said there remains “a big difference” on Syria between Russia and the West, which was laid bare in his talks with Putin in London.
“There’s clearly a big difference between the Russian position and the position of Britain, France and America and many others,” he said. “But where there is common ground is that we all see the need for a peace conference, a peace process and a transition to a different regime in Syria.”
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Putin stands alone among the G-8 members in his support of Assad.
“We in the West have a very different perspective on this situation,” Harper said June 16 in Dublin. “Mr. Putin and his government are supporting the thugs of the Assad regime for their own reasons that I do not think are justifiable.”