'Productive' G8 talks with Syrian opposition

SNC leaders stress commitment to fighting extremism and upholding human rights. Omar Karmi reports from London

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LONDON // The G8 held "very productive" discussions with Syrian opposition leaders, Britain's foreign secretary William Hague said yesterday, but the outcome of the talks fell short of their request for increased aid from the West.

Leaders from the Syrian opposition's main umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), were attending a G8 meeting for the first time, just weeks after being recognised by the Arab League as Syria's legitimate representatives.

Mr Hague said the meetings in London had covered "all aspects" of the crisis but he made no announcement about further aid to the rebels fighting to topple the regime of the president, Bashar Al Assad.

Instead, he said, he had reiterated "the UK's commitment to a political solution that meets the aspirations of the Syrian people".

George Sabra and Suheir Al Atassi, vice-presidents of the SNC, said that they had "underlined their commitment to combating extremism and upholding international law and human-rights standards", an apparent reference to international concern that the opposition was being radicalised.

Also present in the British capital was John Kerry, the US secretary of state, who had lunch with SNC leaders, including Ghassan Hitto, the interim prime minister.

The meeting - hosted by Mr Hague - preceded an announcement that core members of the "Friends of Syria" group would meet in Istanbul on April 20.

A state department official said yesterday that the US was having a "continuing conversation" with the opposition.

But Washington remains wary of arming the rebels because it fears that weapons could be used by militants fighting in Syria, such as Jabhat Al Nusra, which this week merged with Al Qaeda's Iraq division.

"We are always considering a variety of options," the official added. "We are going to continue to aid the opposition, working with them in terms of what they need, in terms of what we're willing to provide."

The G8 countries - Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States - remain divided over Syria.

Russia is a close ally of Mr Al Assad and, along with China, has blocked western-led attempts to reach consensus at the UN's Security Council on removing the Syrian president from power.

Mr Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, are due to have a one-on-one meeting in London, at which Syria is likely to be high on the agenda.

Britain and France, meanwhile, are among the countries pushing for greater international assistance to the Syrian opposition, including direct military support.

Both countries have pushed to lift a European Union arms embargo on supplying Syria's disparate rebels but this has been resisted by other European nations, including Germany and, to a lesser extent, Italy.

Mr Hague had said earlier yesterday that preventing Syria from becoming the "greatest humanitarian disaster of the 21st century" was the top priority of the G8 meeting.

But reaching consensus among G8 countries was "just as difficult" as reaching a unified position in the Security Council, said Dave Hartwell, a Middle East analyst with IHS Jane's, a London-based group of publications focused on international security and intelligence affairs.

He said he expected little new to emerge from the meeting, which continues today.

"I think American policy is evolving, but very slowly," he added.

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