British Prime Minister David Cameron was to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday for key talks about the conflict in Syria which could set the tone for the G8 summit this week.
Cameron will reportedly seek to forge a consensus on how to deal with Syria when he hosts the leaders of the world’s eight most industrialized nations in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, starting today.
Washington has upped the ante on Syria by vowing to send military aid to rebel forces trying to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, after saying it had proof that the regime had crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons on a small scale.
Russia, which has given the Syrian regime military support and ignored months of pleas from the West to rein in al-Assad, was dismissive of the US claims.
US officials will not reveal exactly what military support will go to the Syrian rebels’ Supreme Military Council, although by many estimates it will initially be assault rifles and ammunition.
It seems unlikely it will include the imposition of a no-fly zone to protect rebels from air attack. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov on Saturday said such a zone would violate international law.
Lavrov backed al-Assad, saying there was no need for the Syrian leader to use chemical weapons against the rebels because his forces were making steady advances on the ground anyway.
“What sense is there for the regime to use chemical arms — especially in such small amounts?” he asked.
Ahead of his talks at 10 Downing Street with Putin, Cameron said it was essential to assist the moderate rebels prepared to work with the West before extremists linked to al-Qaeda gained the upper hand in the opposition.
“I want to help the Syrian opposition to succeed and my argument is this: Yes, there are elements of the Syrian opposition that are deeply unsavory, that are very dangerous, very extremist, and I want nothing to do with them,” he told Sky News. “But there are elements of the Syrian opposition who want to see a free, democratic, pluralistic Syria that respects the rights of minorities, including Christians, and we should be working with them.”
Cameron has not said whether he favors sending weapons to the rebels, but he believes the lifting of an EU arms embargo was essential to put pressure on al-Assad.
As tensions rise over a conflict that has reportedly taken more than 90,000 lives, Putin was to follow his talks with Cameron at Downing Street by meeting US President Barack Obama at the G8 summit today.
Cameron held a teleconference on Syria with four of the G8 leaders on Friday — Obama, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta.
A statement from Cameron’s office said the leaders had discussed “how G8 countries should all agree to work together on a political transition to end the conflict.”
The pre-G8 meetings are also likely to ponder the impact of the election of moderate cleric Hassan Rowhani as Iran’s new president.