Syria likely to overshadow agenda as EU leaders gather in Russia with Putin

The summit is intended to allow EU leaders to reacquaint themselves with President Vladimir Putin, but they are expected to lean on him to take a stronger stand on Syria.

An armed Free Syrian Army solider stands guard at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Idlib, Syria, Sunday, June 3. Free Syrian Army soldiers are determined to bring down the regime by force of arms, targeting military checkpoints and other government sites. A U.N. observer team with nearly 300 members has done little to quell the bloodshed.

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European Union officials gathering in St. Petersburg for a summit with Russia today are expected to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to take a firmer position on Syria.

Russia and Syria remain strong allies and Western officials have accused Russia of selling arms and providing support to the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Mr. Putin has denied these claims, but his nation has also refused to condemn Mr. Assad and call for his removal.

If the EU can persuade Moscow to take a harder line against Syria, it may enable the United Nations Security Council to take more decisive action to end the conflict without Russia exercising its veto power. EU officials will likely attempt to persuade Putin to call on Assad to remove heavy weapons from Syrian cities and step down from power.

“We need to make sure that Russia is using fully its leverage in convincing the regime to implement [the plan],” an EU official told Reuters. “The Russian side has certainly not been very helpful in finding solutions in terms of a political way out.”

Along with China, Russia has vetoed two previous UN resolutions against the Syrian government. Russian officials have denied that they are trying to protect Assad, saying that both sides are at fault and any resolution must reflect that; Russia’s RIA Novosti reports that previous resolutions had a "pro-rebel bias." Putin has already said he would not accept a “Libyan scenario” again; Russia's abstension from UN resolution 1973 in March last year enabled it to pass, paving the way for air strikes that brought down Qaddafi's regime and left political instability in its wake.

China appears equally committed to nonintervention in Syria, following a commentary today by The People’s Daily, the main paper of the ruling Chinese Communist party. The editorial called for the international community to put greater stock in UN special envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan and not declare it “dead” due to ulterior motives, reports The New York Times.

“The Syrian question should be resolved by the Syrian people,” wrote The People’s Daily. “Outside powers do not have the right to stick their hands in.”

China will likely soon be in a unique position to push for a policy of non-intervention as it is about to inherit the revolving presidency of the UN Security Council, reports CNN. Taking the presidency at such a critical time may have significant implications for international policy toward Syria.

Going into the summit, Russia showed little indication that it would change its policy toward its Arab ally, reports Al Jazeera. Like China, Russia has said violence must stop and the international community must stick to Mr. Annan’s peace plan to end the Syria crisis.

Russia will continue supporting this position and calls on other states to do the same,” said Russia’s foreign ministry.

Though the Syria question has dominated much of the summit, the main purpose of the gathering is to discuss relations between Europe and Russia and reacquaint European leaders with Putin now that he’s returned to the presidency for a six-year term in office. The Moscow Times reports that the gathering is unlikely to result in any joint press statements or signed agreements.

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