ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland — President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, failed Monday to resolve their differences over how to bring about an end to Syria’s civil war, as each leader steps up military support for opposite sides in the worsening conflict.
Meeting for two hours on the sidelines of the Group of Eight (G-8) summit, Obama and Putin discussed shared economic interests, the recent Iranian election and global security issues that have put the leaders at odds in the past.
Syria’s civil war was chief among them. Sitting side by side, Obama and Putin each indicated they still disagree over the preferred outcome of the war, including on the future of President Bashar Assad and the goals of the armed rebellion.
“Our opinions do not coincide,” Putin said. “But all of us have the intention to stop the violence in Syria.”
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Obama, speaking next, confirmed “we do have differing perspectives” on the war and how to resolve it through negotiations that have yet to take shape.
Obama has demanded that Assad relinquish power as part of any negotiated peace settlement, a condition Putin rejects.
Russia is Assad’s principal weapons supplier, and the Obama administration is about to begin arming rebels on the other side of the conflict that has killed 93,000 people over the past two years, according to U.N. estimates.
On Monday, Assad warned the West not to arm Syria’s insurgency or attempt to provide a no-fly zone to protect rebel-held areas of the country. He told a German newspaper that if weapons were furnished to the insurgents, “Europe’s backyard will become terrorist and Europe will pay the price.” He also denied the increasingly emphatic assertions by Western powers that his government has used deadly sarin nerve gas in the conflict.
Assad’s remarks were published on the website of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Little is known about some of the groups fighting Assad. There have been reports, supported by video, of atrocities carried out by some rebel factions.
France and Britain, though, successfully sought to lift an European embargo on arms deliveries to the rebels. Obama, after months of deliberation, has decided to supply light weapons and ammunition to opposition forces.
But Putin warned that the move was dangerous, saying after a meeting Sunday with British Prime Minister David Cameron that arming the rebels “has little relation to humanitarian values that have been preached in Europe for hundreds of years.”
Western diplomats had given Obama little chance of changing Putin’s opinion on Syria here. But his inability to do so still posed an early setback for Obama on a three-day swing through Europe, his first to the continent since 2011.
This time he is facing rising skepticism in Europe over his expansion of drone warfare, recent disclosures about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) vast data-collecting efforts, and his delay in more aggressively supporting Syria’s beleaguered rebel forces.
Obama began meeting Monday with G-8 leaders, hoping to mend fences and achieve a broader international consensus on how to improve the lagging global economy.
Hours before the summit, Obama and European leaders announced the start of negotiations to forge a new trade agreement between the United States and the 27-nation European bloc.
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership would create what Cameron called “the biggest bilateral trade deal in history,” although talks are expected to be complicated despite urgency on both sides of the Atlantic to boost economic growth. The first round of negotiations will be held next month in Washington.
“There are going to be sensitivities on both sides, there are going to be politics on both sides,” Obama said. “But I’m confident we can get it done.”