G8 leaders on Tuesday called for a peace conference on Syria to be held as soon as possible, but deep divisions remained as Russia stood by its embattled Middle East ally.
At the end of two days of tough talks in Northern Ireland, the leaders agreed to push for a transitional government in Syria that could include members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime who switched sides.
The Syria crisis overshadowed a deal by the world’s leading industrialized nations gathered on the picturesque banks of Lough Erne to crack down on tax evasion and share more cross-border financial information.
British Prime Minister David Cameron insisted the leaders had forged a strong agreement on Syria despite a split with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but their closing statement was short on concrete steps.
Cameron, the summit host, said al-Assad could not join a transitional administration after the deaths of 93,000 people and what Western nations say is the use of chemical weapons.
“As for the transition, look I think it unthinkable that President Assad can play any part in the future government of his country, he has blood on his hands, he has used chemical weapons,” Cameron said.
However, the G8 communique pointedly made no reference to al-Assad in an apparent concession to Moscow, his chief arms supplier.
The statement said only that the transitional body should be “formed by mutual consent.”
The G8 harked back to the chaos after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, saying that Syrian military and security services “must be preserved and restored” in a future set-up.
The leaders did not suggest a date for the proposed Syria peace talks, which were supposed to take place this month in Geneva to follow up on a similar meeting last year but have already been delayed.
However, they did urge Syria to admit chemical weapons investigators and say they were “deeply concerned” by the threat of Islamic extremism among the rebels.
The Syria conflict has sparked fears of a new cold war with Washington saying last week that it would start arming the rebels against the Russian-backed Syrian regime.
Putin, who had an icy confrontation with US President Barack Obama on Monday, was in defiant mood after the summit, saying that Russia would not rule out new arms supplies.
“We are supplying arms to the legitimate government in accordance with legal contracts,” Putin told a news conference.
He denied feeling frozen out of the summit by the G8, to which Russia was only admitted in 1998 and said that “not a single time did it happen that Russia was left alone in defending its approach to the solution of the Syrian problem.”
British officials pointed to Cameron’s efforts to win over Putin in the run-up to the summit, including traveling for talks with the Russian president in Sochi last month.
The G8 nations pledged almost US$1.5 billion in humanitarian aid for refugees inside and outside Syria, including US$300 million from the US and 200 million euros (US$267.8 million) from Germany.
Meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande said that Iranian president-elect Hassan Rowhani would be welcome at the Syria peace talks “if he can be useful.”
The G8 leaders were more united on tax, vowing concrete steps to target not only illegal tax evasion but also tax avoidance by multinational companies that costs taxpayers billions in lost revenues.