Last updated: June 18, 2013 4:51 pm

G8 leaders agree to push for Syria peace conference

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US President Barack Obama, center, British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, and French President Francois Hollande along with other G8 leaders take part in the second Plenary Session of the G8 summit on June 18, 2013 in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. Russia and the US agreed at the G8 summit to push for Syria peace talks, but Presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama made clear their deep differences over the conflict.©AFP

World leaders at the G8 summit on Tuesday agreed to push for a Syrian peace conference – probably in the early autumn – with the west desperately hoping to foment change from within Bashar al-Assad’s regime before the talks begin.

Vladimir Putin, Russian president, refused to endorse the removal of Mr Assad but did agree to a declaration that the west hopes could encourage a military uprising against the Syrian president.

After two days of tense discussions at Lough Erne in Northern Ireland, the G8 called for a Geneva peace conference “as soon as possible”; leaders believe it could take until late August or early September to prepare the ground.

The new delay to the peace conference – originally scheduled for June or July – creates a space of eight weeks for intense diplomatic activity, as well as giving Mr Assad time to push home his military superiority over rebels.

David Cameron, British prime minister and summit host, said it was “unthinkable” that the Syrian leader could play a part in his country’s future but suggested that he could be toppled by his own armed forces.

He said Syria’s military and security services would not be dismantled by any new transitional government, avoiding mistakes made in Iraq, and giving the country’s military strongmen a stake in a post-Assad Syria.

Western diplomats were pleased that Mr Putin had agreed to a communiqué which called for a new “transitional governing body with full executive powers” to be set up by mutual consent.

The hope in Washington, London and Paris is that Mr Putin will prevail on allies inside the Assad regime and persuade them to topple their leader and take part in the Geneva talks.

This may turn out to be wishful thinking, however. Mr Putin remains committed to what he calls the “legitimate” Syrian government and yesterday repeated his warnings over extremist elements in the opposition.

In depth

Syria uprising

The brutal response by the regime of Bashar al-Assad to the popular revolt is exposing failures in international policy and the wishful thinking of policy makers who believed the president was a reformer

Mr Putin has long argued that it would be reckless to ditch the Assad regime when the west has no clear idea what kind of government would be put in its place.

In remarks calculated to infuriate his hosts, he said that if the west armed the rebels in Syria, they could be helping the kind of extremists who carried out the recent “violent assassination” of Lee Rigby, a British soldier, in London.

The G8 summit also revealed the weakness of the west’s negotiating position on Syria. Mr Cameron has spent the past few days retreating from the suggestion that Britain might arm rebels, not least because he cannot command a parliamentary majority for the move.

“Nobody wants to see more conflict, nobody wants to see more arms, nobody wants to see more death,” he said in a closing press conference.

Barack Obama has also toned down suggestions that Washington might send weapons to the rebels. The US president cautioned that it would be “very easy to slip-slide into deeper and deeper commitments” if there were not quick results in six months.

Mr Obama promised to work with Mr Putin to bring both sides to the negotiating table. The Russian president noted during icy exchanges over dinner at the Northern Irish lakeside venue on Monday that opposition Syrian groups had so far refused to take part in peace talks.

Mr Putin said after the summit he did not feel isolated and stressed that peace could only come to Syria through “peaceful and diplomatic” means. He reiterated that arming the opposition “can only exacerbate the situation”.

Meanwhile, French president François Hollande said he would welcome an intervention by the new Iranian president, Hassan Rohani, if he showed himself a useful ally for peace.

The summit communiqué calls for preparations to be made now for a transition to a new government in Syria, formed by “mutual consent” – a phrase that suggests the approval of senior figures in the Assad regime.

It also condemns “any use of chemical weapons in Syria” and urges both Damascus and the rebels at the Geneva conference “to commit to destroying and expelling from Syria all organisations and individuals affiliated to al-Qaeda and any other non-state actors linked to terrorism”.

On the humanitarian front, the G8 leaders agreed to provide nearly $1.5bn in new funds to help people affected by the conflict.

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