G8 exposes U.S.-Russia rift on Syrian civil war

ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland — Deep differences over Syria’s fierce civil war clouded a summit of world leaders Monday, with Russian President Vladimir Putin defiantly rejecting calls from the U.S., Britain and France to halt his political and military support for Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s regime.

But there were also fissures among the three Western nations, despite their shared belief that Assad must leave power. Britain and France appear unwilling — at least for now — to join President Barack Obama in arming the Syrian rebels, a step the U.S. president reluctantly finalized last week.

The debate over the Syria conflict loomed large as the two-day summit of the Group of 8 industrial nations opened Monday at a lakeside resort in Northern Ireland. The lack of consensus even among allies underscored the vexing nature of the two-year conflict in Syria, where at least 93,000 people have been killed as rebels struggle to overtake Assad forces buttressed by support from Hezbollah, Iran and Russia.

Obama and Putin, who already have a frosty relationship, did little to hide their differing views on the matter while speaking to reporters following a one-on-one meeting on the sidelines of the summit Monday evening. The two-hour meeting marked the first time the leaders have met in-person since last year.

“We do have different perspectives on the problem,” Obama said plainly of their divergent views on Syria.

The Russian leader, speaking through a translator, agreed, saying, “our opinions do not coincide.”

But despite their seemingly intractable differences, Obama and Putin did express a shared desire to stop the violence in Syria and convene a political conference in Geneva, Switzerland, next month. But it’s unclear who would participate in such a meeting or whether the rebels, given their weakened position, would have any leverage if they did.

U.S. officials say Obama’s decision to send the rebels weapons and ammunition for the first time was an attempt to increase their military strength in order to bolster their political bargaining power. But the American inventory for the rebels is not yet expected to include the high-powered weaponry sought by the opposition, raising questions about whether the deepening U.S. involvement will be effective in changing the situation on the ground.

The White House also announced Monday an additional $300 million in humanitarian aid for Syria and neighboring countries absorbing refugees escaping the violence. The new money brings the total U.S. humanitarian assistance to $800 million, according to the White House.

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