G8 leaders agree on need, but not on method, to solve Syrian crisis

Story highlights

  • Differences remain between the U.S. and Russia, an official says
  • "There is no proof" that Damascus has used chemical weapons, Vladimir Putin says
  • G8 leaders call for international conference but offer little new to end crisis
  • "Reconciliation minister" says all of the Syrian government should be up for negotiation

The Group of Eight leaders meeting in Northern Ireland on Tuesday called for an international conference on the ongoing crisis in Syria to be held "as soon as possible" but offered little new that might end the civil war there.

In their final statement, the G8 leaders said peace is a shared goal, noted that Jordan and Lebanon are playing a "vital humanitarian role" on refugees and vowed to give nearly $1.5 billion more to meet the humanitarian needs of Syria and its neighbors.

The leaders also expressed concern about the presence of al Qaeda and other extremist elements in Syria.

Though the statement condemned "any use of chemical weapons" and asked for an international team to be allowed to investigate their possible use, it did not say whether such weapons have been used. Nor did it mention Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he had seen no proof that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons and that he was not alone. "Not all of the G8 members take the view that the chemical weapons were in fact used by the Syrian army," he said. "Some actually agreed with us that there is no proof."

He called the discussion on Syria "good" despite disagreements.

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"The bloodshed has to be stopped, and this will be called for," he told reporters. "This can be achieved only by political and diplomatic means."

    Putin implied that shipments of Russian arms to al-Assad regime's could continue. "This is the legal government of Syria, the government of Assad," he said. "There is no other legal government of Syria so far, and we're fulfilling our legal contracts."

    He warned his "European partners" that the arming of rebels could prove dangerous. "Who is going to control and verify who is going to have these weapons?" he asked. "So, we call all our partners -- before making this dangerous step -- think about it very carefully."

    In his remarks, U.S. President Barack Obama told reporters that the U.S. and French governments have evidence that al-Assad has used chemical weapons "in the past."

    Obama said he and French President Francois Hollande agreed that it is important to "move to a political transition in Syria, to build a strong opposition to function in a post-Assad world."

    U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki acknowledged that differences remain between the United States and Russia.

    "There is still a disagreement, as we all know, that we have with the Russians on some issues, but having an international body like the G8 signify that they agree on the path forward, we felt is significant," she told reporters during a briefing on Tuesday.

    But al-Assad's government offered no indication Tuesday that it was going anywhere. Al-Assad's appointee to the newly created post of minister of national reconciliation, Ali Haidar, told CNN's Frederik Pleitgen in an exclusive interview that he believes Syrians can still unite for a political solution at the Geneva, Switzerland, conference, for which no firm date has been set.

    "The best compromise that we can achieve today is that the regime and ... the homeland peaceful opposition agree to the negotiating table without any preconditions, without excluding anybody from the opposition -- which means everything is subject to discussion," Haidar said.

    And that includes the presidency.

    "The office of the president is a matter related to the whole political structure of the country ... and we believe the shape and structure should be discussed among Syrians and should be decided by the Syrians in a referendum because only the Syrian people can decide what happens."

    Preconditions have been a sticking point, with members of the opposition saying they won't negotiate with the regime unless al-Assad steps down from four decades of family rule. Similarly, the government has said it won't deal with "terrorists" -- a term it uses to describe rebels.

    The death toll has reached 92,000, a figure growing by about 5,000 people a month, according to the United Nations.

    "The military problems on the ground only deal with the problem of violence. It does not resolve the political crisis," Haidar said. He said the only solution is a political one, not a military one.

    Haidar's comments came days after the United States announced it will start arming Syrian rebels, who have sought more weapons to fight al-Assad's better-equipped military. The Obama administration said Syria's government had crossed a "red line" by using chemical weapons -- including sarin gas -- against the opposition.

    But Haidar disputed those assertions, which have also been made by Britain and France.

    "The talk about chemical weapons is only for political reasons," Haidar said. "So far, no one has proved anything about who used them and where they were used, and who was behind using the chemical weapons."

    But with a precondition of having no preconditions for a political dialogue, it's unclear if or when "national reconciliation" will take place.

    West of Syria, in Beirut, Lebanon, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres expressed alarm Tuesday over the growing number of refugees in Lebanon.

    A possible spillover of the Syrian crisis into neighboring countries must be addressed "to prevent the flames of war from spreading across the Middle East," Guterres said, according to a UNHCR statement.

    Guterres and Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati appealed to international donors for $1.7 billion in aid.

    The number of Syrians fleeing to Lebanon is projected to exceed 1 million by the end of the year.

    "There is not a village, city or town in Lebanon that is not hosting Syrian refugees," Guterres told reporters in Beirut.

    "The international community must overcome its divisions and come together to stop the fighting if we want to prevent the flames of war from spreading across the Middle East," Guterres said.

    Iran's semiofficial news agency Mehr reported Tuesday that a Foreign Ministry spokesman has denied a report first published Sunday in British newspaper The Independent that Iran has decided to send 4,000 troops to support Syria's government.

    "These news media reports are pure lies and unrealistic fabrications," said Abbas Araqchi, the spokesman. "Iran has never and will never send Iranian forces to Damascus."

    U.S. officials and Syrian opposition fighters say they have intelligence that Iranian forces are in Syria.