Isolated Putin won't budge on Syria
ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland — Russia's Vladimir Putin derailed President Obama's efforts to win backing to bring down Syrian leader Bashar Assad at a G-8 summit on Tuesday, warning the West that arms supplied to the rebels could be used for attacks on European soil.
After two days of intense talks that fell far short of what Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron had been hoping for, Putin fumed against Western moves to supply weapons to rebels while defending his own supplies of arms for Assad.
“We are supplying weapons under legal contracts to the legal government. That is the government of President Assad. And if we are going to sign such contracts, we are going to deliver,” the Russian president said.
Putin, isolated at the summit, repeatedly clashed with other leaders over the fate of Assad and resisted pressure to agree to anything that would imply Assad should step down. In the end, a G-8 communique did not even mention Assad's name.
The summit in a secluded golf resort in Northern Ireland ended with G-8 leaders calling for peace talks to be held as soon as possible to resolve the Syrian civil war. This has been their position for months.
No date was mentioned for a peace conference called by Moscow and Washington, which was supposed to take place next month but now appears to be on hold, after the United States announced last week that it would arm the rebels.
A source at the summit said the peace conference would now be put off at least until August.
Putin struck a defiant tone: he hinted that Obama had tried to isolate Russia, that other leaders were divided, and that plans to send arms to Syrian rebels could lead to murders such as that of a British soldier on a busy London street last month.
“British people have lately witnessed a tragedy, and we lived through it together, when right in the streets of London a British army serviceman was brutally murdered outside his barracks,” Putin said.
“Is it these people that the Europeans want to supply arms? What happens next with those weapons? Who will control in which hands they end up? They could possibly (end up) in Europe.”
Obama and his allies want Assad to cede power, while Putin, whose rhetoric has become increasingly anti-Western since he was re-elected last year, believes that would be disastrous at a time when no clear transition plan exists.
Russia has been Assad's most powerful supporter, shielding the Syrian leader from Western action as his forces struggle to crush an uprising in which 93,000 people have been killed since March 2011, and which is now drawing in neighboring countries.
It has vetoed United Nations Security Council resolutions censuring the Assad government, widely criticised for the ferocity with which it has waged the war.
Syria is one of Moscow's last allies in the Middle East. Its influence has declined since the collapse of the Soviet Union but the Russian navy still has a base at the Mediterranean port of Tartus.