G-8 leaders call for Syrian peace talks, sidestep issue of whether Assad should go

Leaders of the Group of Eight nations called Tuesday for a negotiated resolution to the worsening conflict in Syria, but in a concession to Russia, they did not declare that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must resign.

The compromise was an effort to promote a process aimed at ending a civil war that the United Nations estimates has taken at least 93,000 lives, while avoiding the central point of disagreement that separates Russia from the United States and most European powers.

Although the G-8 broadly endorsed proposed peace negotiations, the leaders did not make progress on how the talks would proceed and who would be allowed to participate in them. U.S. officials said that arranging the Geneva conference would be the next step in the process, which will begin in earnest next Tuesday, when U.S., Russian and U.N. officials meet in the Swiss city to decide the talks’ parameters.

“We very much share the view that it is important for us to build on the G-8 communique — to move toward a political transition inside of Syria, to build a strong opposition that can function in a post-Assad world — and that we will continue to work to try to find a political solution to this process,” President Obama said Tuesday after meeting with French President Francois Hollande.

As the two-day summit in this resort town concluded, the question of how to end Syria’s war emerged as the most vivid example of the divide between the United States and Russia, a potential key partner or chief obstacle in several of the most pressing national security issues.

The differences between the United States, which wants Assad out, and Russia, the Syrian leader’s chief weapons supplier, were clear Monday after a two-hour meeting between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two bluntly declared that their disagreement about Syria’s future, in particular whether Assad remains viable as a leader, could not be bridged during the summit.

Obama recently decided to directly arm Syria’s rebel forces, turning the conflict into a proxy war, with the United States and its European and Arab allies on one side and Russia and Iran on the other.

The debate defined the G-8 leaders’ dinner Monday, and administration officials said negotiators then worked until 2:30 a.m. to come up with a statement on Syria acceptable to the United States and to Russia. The result, which effectively skirts the question of Assad’s future, was reached Tuesday morning during the leaders’ first meeting of the day.

“What we want to bring out of this, frankly, is that we want the Russians to work with the regime to make sure they come to the table in a serious fashion,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic affairs, referring to the Assad government.

Rhodes told reporters aboard Air Force One that the administration is “very pleased with the language that was agreed to on Syria, which represented a good convergence of views at the G-8.” But he acknowledged that even achieving the compromise was challenging and that arranging peace talks at a time when Assad’s forces have taken the upper hand in fighting will be even more difficult.

“This process will have to lead to a new governing authority in Syria,” Rhodes said. “This is not simply a negotiation about having a dialogue. This is a negotiation about a transition to a new government.”

In addition to supporting a peace process, G-8 leaders pledged $1.5 billion to aid Syrian refugees, including a $300 million contribution from the United States.

They also condemned the use of chemical weapons and called on the United Nations to look into evidence the Obama administration says is credible that Assad’s forces used sarin multiple times over the past year.

Rhodes said “huge challenges” remain in Syria but added, “In the many ways the G-8 could have gone, it’s very helpful to have this signal being sent by the eight countries.”

The G-8 leaders issued a cautious assessment of the worldwide economy Tuesday and indicated that if another global downturn is to be avoided, governments must do more to promote growth.

In a statement, the G-8 warned that “global economic prospects remain weak, though downside risks have reduced thanks in part to significant policy actions taken” in the United States, euro-zone nations and Japan.

The Obama administration and the new government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have promoted stimulus policies to spur economic growth, while the European Central Bank has taken steps to increase the money supply as a jolt to the sluggish euro-zone economy.

The tacit endorsement by the G-8 of those efforts marks a modest achievement for Obama, who has faced criticism from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom he will meet with Wednesday in Berlin, and other leaders who favor government austerity measures to promote growth over the long term.

But the leaders’ message overall portrayed the year ahead as a difficult one, with the euro zone in recession and the American economy, while improving, still hampered by high unemployment rates.

The statement noted that “the prospects for growth in some regions have weakened since the Camp David summit,” the G-8 meeting Obama held at the presidential retreat a year ago.

“While countries have taken steps to avoid the worst of the tail risks that faced the world economy in 2012, vulnerabilities remain in 2013, highlighting the need for countries to press ahead with the necessary reforms to restore sustainable growth and jobs,” the statement said.

The summit focused on ways to better promote growth, not only in the world’s wealthiest nations, but also in developing countries where a lack of government transparency and weak rule of law might discourage outside investment.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, the summit’s host, said the economic portion of the meeting would focus on “trade, taxes and transparency.”

Cameron and Obama announced Monday that talks will begin next month in Washington on a broad free-trade agreement between the United States and the 27-nation European Union. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, could create jobs and economic growth on both sides of the Atlantic, although negotiations are expected to be complex and politically challenging.

On taxation, the G-8 leaders focused on addressing the inconsistencies in different countries’ tax laws to prevent corporate tax avoidance. Summit leaders agreed to better share company registry information to, in the words of a U.S. statement, “assist law enforcement and tax authorities in understanding who actually owns and controls legal entities and assist cross-border investigations.”

A major push is expected in coming months to overhaul global tax rules so that multinational firms cannot as easily play nations against one another to limit their tax bills. The issue has become particularly pressing in developed countries facing large deficits and public outrage over the ability of sophisticated companies to shelter profits overseas.

But it also includes concern that poorer nations do not get their fair share of taxes from the mineral wealth pulled from their soil. The G-8 statement incorporated a call for “extractive companies” to report payments to local governments as a way to discourage corruption and give a better sense of what they are paying in taxes.

“Minerals should be sourced legitimately, not plundered from conflict zones,” said the statement, which was hailed by nongovernmental organizations that have urged more transparency in the global mining industry.

Late Tuesday, Obama arrived in Berlin, where he will speak Wednesday at the Brandenburg Gate to mark the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s speech to a then-divided city.

Once highly popular in Europe, Obama on this visit faces concerns about his expansion of drone warfare, recent disclosures about the National Security Agency’s vast data-collection efforts and his delay in more aggressively supporting Syria’s beleaguered rebel forces.

“It’s a call on citizens and government to do what is necessary so that we succeed in the next 50 years as we have in the last 50,” Rhodes said of Wednesday’s speech.

Howard Schneider in Washington contributed to this report.

Scott Wilson is the chief White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Previously, he was the paper’s deputy Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign News after serving as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.
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