President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland on Monday, when the two will square off over the United States’ decision to provide Syrian anti-government rebels with weapons.
The rare meeting of the two leaders, who have always had a frosty relationship, is unlikely to produce any breakthrough — and will highlight the growing schism between Western powers and Russia over how to respond to the civil war in Syria.
Putin has been a dependable ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, delivering weapons to his regime and undermining calls from Obama and other U.S. allies for the leader to step down from power. Ahead of the G-8 summit, Putin dismissed the Syrian rebels as “cannibals who ate their enemies’ intestines.”
Despite pressure from the other seven countries attending the G-8 gathering, Putin is unlikely to alter his stance on Syria, analysts said.
“In Putin’s view — one which he lays out repeatedly in meetings with U.S., European and other officials — Syria is the latest battleground in a multi-decade struggle against Sunni Islamist extremism, which first began in Afghanistan with the Taliban in the 1980s, moved to the Russian republic of Chechnya in the 1990s, and has most recently convulsed countries like Egypt, and Libya,” said Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Putin wants stability and predictability at home and abroad. This means supporting strong or secular leaders who can keep their people and other regional actors in check.”
Obama is looking to convince Putin that Assad’s ouster is inevitable and that such a development would not harm Russian interests in the region. But with Assad gaining momentum in recent weeks, Putin is even more unlikely to increase pressure on the Syrian leader.
Originally, the G-8 gathering was supposed to center on economic matters, but the more than 90,000 deaths in the Syrian civil war have overshadowed that agenda.
For his part, Obama started his cross-Atlantic trek Monday with an appeal for peace in a country with its own history of civil war.
“The terms of peace may be negotiated by political leaders, but the fate of peace is up to each of us,” Obama said from Belfast’s Waterfront Hall in Northern Ireland.
Obama and Putin last met a year ago in Mexico. Obama was much closer with former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, to whom he infamously promised “more flexibility” in U.S.-Russian relations — after his final election.
Obama and Putin are scheduled to meet at 1:30 p.m. Eastern time at the Lough Erne golf resort, near the Northern Irish town of Enniskillen.