Buildings in Syria's Homs province were reportedly damaged by fighting… (Associated Press, Associated…)
BEIRUT — Global economic leaders, including the United States and Russia, reiterated support Tuesday for a political solution to the Syrian civil war, backing a plan for a transitional government hammered out last year in Geneva.
The contentious issue of Syria and whether any plan would include the removal of President Bashar Assad from office had split the summit of the Group of 8 industrialized nations, held in Northern Ireland, but in the end the leaders of the world's richest nations managed to craft a statement of common goals.
"We remain committed to achieving a political solution to the crisis based on a vision for a united, inclusive and democratic Syria," the G-8 statement said.
Russia, a major supporter of the Assad government, successfully resisted inclusion of any statement regarding the Syrian president's fate.
Moscow has said that the Syrian people must decide Assad's future as part of the negotiating process. The United States and its allies have said Assad must step down as part of any political settlement.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, the summit host, told reporters it was "unthinkable" that Assad would be part of any future government. But the final G-8 communique omitted Cameron's viewpoint.
The deep differences in opinion on Syria were evident in the uncomfortable public sessions featuring Russian President Vladimir Putin with Cameron and with President Obama. Many observers commented on the awkward body language during Putin's meetings with his British and U.S. counterparts.
The 2012 Geneva road map for peace in Syria calls for negotiations among opposing sides in the conflict, leading to the formation of a transitional government agreed upon by "mutual consent." The Geneva plan does not explicitly call for Assad's removal from office, a point that Russian officials often emphasize.
Moscow also seemed to prevail in the sensitive issue of chemical weapons. The final communique condemned use of chemical arms in Syria but did not point the finger at government loyalists or opposition forces for having launched a chemical attack.
The United States and its allies have accused the Assad government of deploying a poison gas, sarin, in limited amounts, but have declined to make public evidence backing the allegation. Russia has said it is not convinced the government used poison gas. Each side in the Syrian conflict has accused the other of using chemical weapons.
The G-8 statement called on all parties in the Syrian war — which the United Nations says has killed more than 100,000 people — to allow U.N. personnel the access required to investigate the chemical weapons charges.
With diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian crisis stalled, U.S. and Russian diplomats are trying to organize so-called Geneva 2 peace talks to put the transitional government plan in motion, a move backed by the G-8 leaders.
"We strongly endorse the decision to hold as soon as possible the Geneva Conference on Syria," the G-8 statement said.
The projected talks have been put off amid battlefield gains by the Syrian government and a refusal by U.S.-backed opposition factions to attend without assurances that Assad will step down.
Assad has said his government would participate in the conference without preconditions. But the main U.S.-backed opposition umbrella group has said it would not take part unless Assad's removal from office was guaranteed.
Washington's decision last week to send weapons to the rebels — its earlier aid had all been "nonlethal," the White House says — has failed to persuade the fractured opposition to attend the as-yet unscheduled Geneva 2 talks.
One point of convergence of opinion among summit participants was "the growing threat from terrorism and extremism in Syria, and also ... the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict," the nations said. The G-8 called on Syrian authorities and opposition leaders "to commit to destroying and expelling from Syria all organizations and individuals affiliated to Al Qaeda, and any other non-state actors linked to terrorism."
Thousands of foreign Islamic militants have traveled to Syria to fight on the side of the rebels. Some are affiliated with Al Qaeda-linked groups, like Al Nusra Front. Many observers have said they were concerned that the militants could destabilize Syria for years to come. Hundreds of European volunteers are reported among the foreign fighters, prompting worry about possible terrorist attacks in Europe once the militants in Syria return home.
G-8 leaders also pledged an additional $1.5 billion in humanitarian aid for Syria and neighboring nations. The two-year conflict has prompted more than 1.6 million Syrians to flee the country, mostly to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, taxing resources and heightening social stresses in those nations. In Syria, more than 4 million people have been displaced from their homes, experts say.