G8 summit exposes deep rifts on Syria

Civil war looms large over meeting of industrial nations

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U.S., EU to discuss deal on free trade

ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland (AP) — The European Union and the United States will open negotiations next month on a long-sought deal to create free trade between the world’s two mightiest economic regions, an effort designed to create millions of jobs that could take years to transform from dream to reality.

EU and U.S. leaders announced the plans Monday at the start of the G-8 summit of wealthy nations in Northern Ireland.

At stake is a vision of boosting the value of trans-Atlantic trade in goods and services that President Barack Obama said already exceeds $1 trillion annually, as well as $4 trillion annually in investment in each other’s economies.

EU and U.S. officials agreed at the start of the Group of Eight summit that these already colossal trade figures could be much higher if only both sides agreed to dismantle high tariff walls and bureaucratic hurdles that undermine the export of many products.

Prime Minister David Cameron said a tariff- and barrier-free trade environment could generate an extra $150 billion annually for the 27-nation European Union, perhaps $120 billion for the United States, and provide a similar growth jolt for the rest of the world.

ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland — Deep differences over Syria’s fierce civil war clouded a summit of world leaders Monday, with Russian President Vladimir Putin defiantly rejecting calls from the U.S., Britain and France to halt his political and military support for Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s regime.

But there were also fissures among the three Western nations, despite their shared belief that Assad must leave power. Britain and France appear unwilling — at least for now — to join President Barack Obama in arming the Syrian rebels, a step the U.S. president reluctantly finalized last week.

The debate over the Syria conflict loomed large as the two-day summit of the Group of 8 industrial nations opened Monday at a lakeside resort in Northern Ireland. The lack of consensus even among allies underscored the vexing nature of the two-year conflict in Syria, where at least 93,000 people have been killed as rebels struggle to overtake Assad forces buttressed by support from Hezbollah, Iran and Russia.

Obama and Putin, who already have a frosty relationship, did little to hide their differing views on the matter while speaking to reporters following one-on-one talks on the sidelines of the summit Monday evening. The two-hour meeting marked the first time the leaders have met in person since last year.

“We do have different perspectives on the problem,” Obama said of their divergent views on Syria.

The Russian leader, speaking through a translator, agreed, saying, “our opinions do not coincide.”

But despite their seemingly intractable differences, Obama and Putin did express a shared desire to stop the violence in Syria and convene a political conference in Geneva, Switzerland. U.S. officials said they were still aiming to hold the summit next month, though that prospect was looking increasingly unlikely given the deepening violence.

It’s also unclear who would participate in such a meeting or whether the rebels, given their weakened position, would have any leverage if they did.

U.S. officials say Obama’s decision to send the rebels weapons and ammunition for the first time was an attempt to increase their military strength in order to bolster their political bargaining power. But the American inventory for the rebels is not yet expected to include the high-powered weaponry sought by the opposition, raising questions about whether the deepening U.S. involvement will be effective in changing the situation on the ground.

The White House also announced Monday an additional $300 million in humanitarian aid for Syria and neighboring countries absorbing refugees escaping the violence. The new money brings the total U.S. humanitarian assistance to $800 million, according to the White House.

Obama’s decision to arm the rebels coincided with the White House’s announcement last week that it had definitive evidence of multiple instances of chemical weapons use by Assad’s regime against the opposition. Britain and France have also accused Assad of using the deadly agent sarin, while Russia has publicly questioned the credibility of chemical weapons evidence.

Moscow’s continued support for Assad is based in part on Russia’s deep economic and military ties with his regime. Last month, Russia acknowledged it has agreed to sell Syria advanced S-300 air-defense missiles, which are considered to be the cutting edge in aircraft interception technology.