June 17, 2013
Jennifer Collins, Special for USA TODAY
With additional reporting by Syria Direct’s Nuha Shabaan in Amman. The original story published in USA Today is here.
Syria is set to top the agenda for leaders meeting as part of the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland on Monday, but analysts say a major breakthrough on what action to take in the civil-war torn country is unlikely.
“I don’t expect a major breakthrough on Syria, even though both camps will likely stress their common interests, their preference for a political solution … and the need for a peace conference,” said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics.
President Obama, who arrived in Northern Ireland on Monday, and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to hold bilateral talks during the summit. They hold opposing views on the situation in Syria. On the eve of the summit, Putin accused British Prime Minister David Cameron of betraying humanitarian values by supporting Syrian rebels with “blood on their hands.”
Russia and the West have long been at odds over Syria. As the violence continues to escalate in the region, Putin expressed anger at the U.S. commitment to supply small arms and ammunition to rebels as a result of the U.S. saying there was proof Bashar Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons on its citizens.
Meanwhile, Russia has been providing arms and diplomatic support to the Assad regime, an action Putin defended at a press conference with Cameron in London on Sunday. Putin described Assad’s government as “the legitimate government of Syria in full conformity with the norms of international law.”
Gerges said it is unlikely that both camps will be able to bridge the gap, likening the current relationship between Russia and the U.S. to that of Cold War era.
“Far from changing or shifting its position, Russia has become much more supportive of the Syrian government,” said Gerges. “The main stumbling block is that the Western powers want a transitional government with full executive powers with Assad stepping down. Russia believes that Syrians should decide the fate of Assad and not the Western powers.”
Moscow continues to stick to the principle of non-interference in what it calls Syria’s “internal affairs,” a position it has held since the beginning of the uprising, said Anna Borshchevskaya, a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy.
“Russia has too much vested in the current Syrian regime to let it go. Moscow still views Assad as perhaps its closest Arab ally in the Middle East, with deep cultural, historical, and business connections between the two,” she said.
The Obama administration made the announcement that it would provide upgraded military aid to Syria on Friday following months of hesitation.
The United States vowed at the outbreak of the conflict in March 2011 that it would not intervene in Syria as it had in Libya, but made a statement in August of last year that if the regime used chemical weapons, it would cross a “red line” that could force the U.S. to change its position.
News of chemical weapons attacks carried out by Assad’s regime surfaced in April, with France and Israel saying reports of dozens being killed appeared to be credible. The Syrian government’s armed forces have launched 13 such attacks targeting Homs, Aleppo, Damascus and Idlib and killing 57 people, according to a report published June 15 by the Syrian Network for Human rights.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) welcomed the U.S. decision to provide more military aid but said it needed larger weapons.
“The weapons we require above all are anti-aircraft and anti-shield weapons, so that we can stop the air force and stop the regime and Hezbollah from advancing,” said Fahed Al-Masri, media officer for the FSA’s joint command in Paris.
The FSA also called for western powers to create a no-fly-zone.
“We encourage the American administration and the European Union to decide on a no-fly-zone to protect defenseless civilians from the regime’s daily bombings with rockets and aircraft,” Louai Mikdad, spokesman for FSA general staff in Turkey, told USA TODAY.
In an interview with the German daily newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, published online on Monday, Assad said the Syrian army is fighting terrorists and Europe will pay the price if it decides to deliver weapons to these terrorists.
“If the Europeans deliver weapons, Europe’s own back yard will have terrorism and Europe will pay the price for this … The second consequence is that it would deliver terrorism to Europe,” he said. “Terrorists will gain battle experience and will come back with extremist ideologies. For Europe, there is no alternative but to cooperate with the Syrian state, even if it doesn’t like this.”
As well as Syria, economic issues are also expected to be discussed at the two-day summit, which includes leaders from France, Germany and the U.K.
Early Monday, Obama called peace in Northern Ireland a “blueprint” for those living amid conflict around the world, while acknowledging that the calm between Catholics and Protestants will face further tests. Summoning young people to take responsibility for their country’s future, Obama warned there is “more to lose now than there’s ever been.”
“The terms of peace may be negotiated by political leaders, but the fate of peace is up to each of us,” Obama said Monday during remarks at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall to 1,800 students and adults. The glass-fronted building would never have been built during the city’s long era of car bombs.
Significant progress has been made in the 15 years since the U.S.-brokered Good Friday Accords, including a Catholic-Protestant government and the disarmament of the IRA and outlawed Protestant groups responsible for most of the 3,700 death toll. But tearing down Belfast’s nearly 100 “peace lines” — barricades of brick, steel and barbed wire that divide neighborhoods, roads and even one Belfast playground — is still seen by many as too dangerous.
First lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha, who also made the trip from Washington, were to spend Monday and Tuesday in Dublin while the president attended the G-8 summit. Later Tuesday, the first family departs for Germany, where the president will meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel and speak at the Brandenburg Gate.