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.
There also were fissures among the three Western nations, despite their shared belief that Assad must leave power. Britain and France appear unwilling — for now — to join President Barack Obama in arming 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 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 after one-on-one talks 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 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. U.S. officials said they were still aiming to have the summit next month. 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.
The White House 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.