Russia is unwavering in its support of Bashar Al Assad and will oppose any attempt to impose a no-fly zone over Syria. Omar Karmi reports
Shadow of Syria looms over G8 gathering
LONDON // Leaders of world's most powerful nations criticised Russia's backing of Bashar Al Assad's regime yesterday as they gathered for a summit that seemed likely to be overshadowed by differences over Syria's civil war.
Russia is unwavering in its support of Mr Al Assad, and yesterday the Russian foreign ministry spokesman said Moscow would oppose any attempt at imposing a no-fly zone over Syria.
Other G8 members, including the US, France and the UK, are supporting the opposition and the possibility of a no-fly zone has been mooted.
The Obama administration has also announced it would be stepping up its support for Syrian rebels to potentially include weapons and other lethal assistance.
A crucial meeting between Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and Barack Obama, the US president, was held last night.
Washington's announcement on Friday of its increased support for the rebels came after months of US reluctance to get more deeply involved, and only after the momentum on the battlefield seemed to swing toward the Syrian army.
Mr Obama has yet to comment directly on that decision, however, and he did not mention Syria yesterday in a speech before the summit to about 1,800 Northern Irish students in Belfast.
Moscow's statement about its opposition to a Syria no-fly zone came a day after David Cameron, Britain's prime minister and this year's G8 president, and Mr Putin held one-on-one talks in London ahead of the summit.
Mr Cameron came out of the meeting conceding that there remained "big differences" between the two countries on how to proceed on Syria.
For his part, Mr Putin warned Britain, France and the US - the three western countries who have said they might arm Syria's rebels - that they risked instead arming extremists who "eat the organs" of their enemies.
He was referring to footage that emerged last month purporting to show a rebel leader eating the liver of a slain Syrian soldier.
But Mr Putin is likely to come under some pressure at the G8 summit, where Moscow's support for Mr Assad, Syria's president, leaves it very much isolated among the countries represented there.
In addition to Britain, France, the US and Russia, the G8 comprises Germany, Canada, Italy and Japan.
The leaders of Canada and France were highly critical of the Russian position. Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper, said Russia was supporting "Assad's thugs", while Francois Hollande, the French president, criticised the supply of Russian arms to the Syrian government while the "opposition receives very few and is being massacred".
Mr Obama cautioned that Northern Ireland's own hard-wrought peace would be tested again and urged his audience to remain steadfast.
The Syrian conflict is not officially on the G8 agenda, however, even if it will likely overshadow proceedings at the Lough Erne resort in Northern Ireland's County Fermaugh.
US and European Union leaders yesterday announced that they would hold the first round of talks to establish a US-EU trans-Atlantic free trade zone in Washington in July.
US-European trade is already worth nearly US$3 billion (Dh11bn) a day, and any pact could see the economies of the two regions boosted by as much as $100bn a year. It is a hugely attractive proposition on both sides of the Atlantic, where both regions are still reeling from the consequences of the 2008 global financial crisis.
Mr Cameron said agreement would be a "once-in-a-generation prize, and we are determined to seize it", and US and EU officials said they were seeking to secure agreement by the end of next year.
The idea has been floated before, but France proved an obstacle in the 1990s.
The country still remains concerned about the consequences of any such agreement on domestic industries, and it sought and received guarantees from other EU countries on Friday that its film and entertainment industry would remain protected.
Also on the G8 agenda were efforts to tackle tax avoidance, an issue Mr Cameron has been keen to promote.
He has already announced new disclosure rules for British companies and is turning up the pressure on tax havens linked to Britain to sign on to an international transparency protocol to lay bare money flows.
The summit winds up today.