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Fate of Syria, U.S. Aid to Rebels Dominates Attention at G-8 Summit

June 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
What to do about the bloody war in Syria is overshadowing the usual agenda of trade deals and unemployment at this year's G-8 summit in Ireland. Gwen Ifill reports on conflict playing out during the conference around the United States' decision to send military aid to Syrian rebels.

GWEN IFILL: The “Group of Eight” summit was alive today with talk of Syria, and the U.S. move to intervene there more directly.

The international gathering convened in Northern Ireland.

And the G-8 leaders arrived today, Syria’s bloody civil war overshadowed the conference’s usual focus on trade deals and unemployment. The U.S. decision to send arms to the Syrian rebels guaranteed the issue a place in the summit spotlight. At the same time, it fueled a growing dispute between Washington and Moscow.

President Obama and Russian President Putin met privately on the sidelines of the meeting today in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. Publicly, at least, The tone was conciliatory.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We do have differing perspectives on the problem, but we share an interest in reducing the violence, securing chemical weapons, and that we want to try to resolve the issue through political means if possible.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia: Of course, our opinions do not coincide. But we are united by the common intention to end the violence, to stop the number of victims from increasing in Syria, and to resolve the problems by peaceful means.

GWEN IFILL: But Putin was much more blunt in London yesterday, without President Obama at his side. Criticizing any move to aid the rebels, he cited a notorious incident involving a rebel commander.

PRESIDENT PUTIN: I believe one doesn’t really need to support the people who not only kill their enemies, but open up their bodies, eat their intestines in front of the public gaze and cameras? Are these the people you want to support? Are they the ones you want to supply with weapons?

GWEN IFILL: Putin also defended Russian arms shipments to the Assad regime.

Back in Moscow today, the Russian foreign minister accused the U.S. of mounting military exercises in Jordan as a cover for implementing a no-fly zone over Syria, something Russia opposes.

ALEXANDER LUKASHEVICH, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesman: I think we fundamentally will not allow the scenario. And reports that our American partners are doing preparatory works at military complexes related to this in Jordan are also a direct violation of international law.

GWEN IFILL: And in Damascus, Syrian President Assad condemned the U.S. move, telling a German newspaper that Europe will pay the price if it does the same.

In Washington on Sunday, former Vice President Dick Cheney took the opposite tack, warning that President Obama is doing too little too late in Syria.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY, United States: You had an opportunity earlier to provide support without having to get American forces directly involved, and they took a path. Now they’re going to do it. But the question is whether or not they’re a day late and a dollar short.

GWEN IFILL: White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough answered critics across the spectrum by saying the president has no intention to rush to war.

DENIS MCDONOUGH, White House Chief of Staff: We want to make sure that Syrians who want to take charge of their own country have the ability to do that. We have to be very discerning about what is in our interests and what the outcome — what outcome is best for us and the prices that we’re willing to pay to get to that place.

GWEN IFILL: The Syrian conflict itself is increasingly devolving into a sectarian war. On Sunday, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a Sunni, cut diplomatic ties with Damascus. He demanded that Shiite Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon leave Syria.

And late today, the Obama administration announced it would send an additional $300 million dollars in humanitarian aid to those affected by the Syrian crisis. That brings total U.S. assistance to nearly $850 million dollars since the civil war began.