ENNISKILLEN — The Group of Eight stopped short of calling for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad in its final statement on Tuesday, but called for a swift end to the bloody civil war and urgent peace talks to stop the country from spiralling further into chaos.
Despite the lack of consensus among the G8 around the fate of Assad, as well as the use of chemical weapons by his regime, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the outcome was better than he expected.
On the eve of the summit, Harper characterized the group as “G7 plus one” — the outlier being Russian President Vladimir Putin — when it came to Syria. Russia is the only member of the G8 that supports the Assad government.
But the prime minister struck a more conciliatory tone Tuesday at the end of the two-day Northern Ireland summit hosted by British Prime Minister David Cameron.
“We have a very different outcome here and a much better outcome than I thought we were going to have,” Harper said.
“We don’t have, as I said, G7 plus one. We have a genuine G8 statement.”
Indeed, both sides seem to recognize the two-year crisis is at a critical point.
Tensions have escalated in the last week since the United States announced it would supply weapons and ammunition to the Syrian opposition after it found proof the Assad regime attacked its foes with chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin.
Russia — one of four G8 members with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council — has been highly critical of the U.S. move to arm the rebels. The Russians have also scoffed at U.S. claims about the use of chemical weapons, saying they’re based on flimsy evidence.
The G8 statement suggests the group remains split.
The Russians still flat out refuse to acknowledge that the Syrian regime attacked its foes with chemical weapons.
The United States, meanwhile, maintains it has proof Assad’s forces carried out such attacks. The rest of the G8 is split over whether the U.S. should arm the Syrian rebels, but generally sides with the American position that Assad must go.
The final G8 statement on Syria sought the middle ground. It condemned any use of chemical weapons without admitting any attacks actually happened.
“We condemn any use of chemical weapons in Syria and call on all parties to the conflict to allow access to the UN investigating team mandated by the UN Secretary General … in order to conduct an objective investigation into reports of use of chemical weapons,” the statement said.
It also called for some sort of transitional government, without explicitly calling for Assad’s ouster.
“We remain committed to achieving a political solution to the crisis based on a vision for a united, inclusive and democratic Syria,” the statement said.
The G8 also called for immediate talks — “fully representative of the Syrian people” — aimed at quelling the violence that has now raged for more than two years.
The statement cannot be interpreted to mean the G8 would support Assad staying in power, Harper said.
“It is very clear that what the Russians have moved towards, what all of us have said, is that we now want to see a transition in Syria,” he said.
“And I think it’s spelled out very clearly, a transition to a government that is broadly representative. I don’t think that can be interpreted in any way, shape or form as support for the current regime as it us. So I think this was a very significant move on the part of Mr. Putin and the Russians.”
The prime minister also spoke about Putin in more positive terms than he has at any other point during his week-long trip to Europe, when he accused the Russian president of siding with “thugs.”
“I think we’re all on the same page now. And as I say, this is not just different from what I would have thought a couple of days ago in Dublin, but certainly very different from what we heard when Mr. Putin met Mr. Cameron in London,” Harper said.
“So I think there’s been a real shift here, and I hope it’s real, and obviously we’re going to work to make sure it is.”
While the G8 is split over Syria, there were agreements in other areas.
They pledged to stop making ransom payments to terrorist kidnappers and to take action to combat hidden company ownership.
Harper and Obama also chatted for 10-12 minutes Tuesday morning as they walked along a golf cart path at the lakeside Lough Erne resort. The prime minister said they talked about Keystone XL pipeline and other areas of mutual interest.