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Foreign ministers struggle to find common ground on Syrian conflict

Russia has been unmoving in its opposition to stronger action against the Assad regime, putting it at odds with the rest of the G8, meeting today in London, on how to resolve the Syrian conflict.

Peter Macdiarmid/AP
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, left, greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the G8 Foreign Ministers meeting at Lancaster House Thursday April 11, 2013 in London, England.

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Syria and North Korea top the agenda as foreign ministers from the Group of Eight industrialized nations meet today in London. While the G8 countries are united in their determination to dial down tensions on the Korean peninsula, how to respond to the Syrian conflict has proved much more divisive.

"There is no disagreement with the United States over North Korea," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday at a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry

But there are no signs of a policy shift that could bring a resolution to the Syrian conflict, which has been going on more than two years and has left more than 70,000 dead. Russia's opposition to stronger action against President Bashar al-Assad is widely viewed as a key obstacle to more collective action against the regime, a longtime Russian ally. A US official told Reuters that "there was no sign of any change in Moscow's stance on Syria."

Some members of the G8 – made up of the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada, and Russia – met with members of the Syrian opposition on the sidelines of the talks yesterday. The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) appealed once again for weapons and humanitarian support for their fight against President Assad.

Mr. Kerry noted it was key for the opposition to become better organized, reports Reuters. The SNC has been plagued by internal divisions and a leadership that is often accused of being too far removed from opposition fighters on the ground. Its presence on the sidelines at this week’s gathering is an attempt to garner greater international legitimacy, security analyst Michael Stephens told Reuters.

"It shows there's a graduated process, where they went from laughing stock to being approved by the Arab League to being listened to by G8 leaders," Mr. Stephens said. "There's a groundswell of support that appears to be building up behind them."

However, evidence of links between some rebel factions and extremist groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq – which officially incorporated Syrian militant group Jabhat al-Nusra into its ranks this week – has deterred Western nations from arming the Syrian opposition, and is still stymieing some kinds of assistance, BBC reports. In late February, the US announced it would boost the size and scope of its aid to Syria, delivering nonlethal aid directly to rebels, but still refused to provide arms.

However, The New York Times reports that heading into the G8 talks, there were “signs that Britain and France were prepared to let the European Union arms embargo expire by the end of May so that they could increase their assistance [to Syria].”

“We certainly believe that it’s necessary to continue, if the situation continues to deteriorate, to increase the practical help we give to the Syrian opposition,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said. “We think that as things stand today, there is going to be a very strong case for further amendments to the embargo or the lifting of the embargo.”

The New York Times reports that in Washington, President Obama has “agreed in principle” to further assist the military wing of the Syrian opposition.

“Our assistance has been on an upward trajectory, and the president has directed his national security team to identify additional measures so that we can increase assistance,” a senior administration official told The Times.

A report on the Syrian Air Force's operations, released yesterday by the New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch, highlights the disparity between the Syrian government and rebel forces. The report notes that more than 4,300 civilians have been killed by aerial attacks by the Air Force since July 2012.

"The aim of the airstrikes appears to be to terrorize civilians from the air, particularly in the opposition-controlled areas where they would otherwise be fairly safe from any effects of fighting," Human Rights Watch employee Ole Solvang told the Associated Press.

While the rebels have made major gains, they often cannot hold on to the territory because of the regime's superior air power. The continued threat from the air has also stalled efforts to effectively govern rebel-held areas, allowing opposition leaders from the Western-backed alliance only brief excursions into areas under rebel control.

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