Syria to dominate G8 talks as rebels ask US for weapons

The ministers kicked off their gathering over dinner late Wednesday; North Korea also on agenda

LONDON, United Kingdom – US Secretary of State John Kerry and other G8 foreign ministers were on Thursday, April 11, to hold a second day of talks in London focused on Syria after rebels again appealed for weapons.

The ministers kicked off their gathering over dinner late Wednesday, shortly after Syrian opposition leaders met with Kerry about their repeated calls for arms to fight the Syrian regime forces.

But a top jihadist group’s earlier pledge of loyalty to Al-Qaeda deepened Western concerns that weapons could fall into the wrong hands in Syria.

Iran’s atomic ambitions, rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, instability in north and west Africa, and climate change will also be up for discussion, according to Britain’s Foreign Office.

The talks on Wednesday with members of the opposition Syrian National Coalition included its prime minister Ghassan Hitto.

The United States said it was mulling ways to step up help for Syria’s rebels. Kerry held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a bid to find common ground with a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on ending the conflict.

However, overshadowing the discussions was a statement on Wednesday by the head of Syria’s jihadist Al-Nusra Front pledging allegiance to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, which only increases Western doubts about arming the rebels.

A top State Department official confirmed that, during a lunch hosted by British Foreign Secretary William Hague, the Syrian opposition leaders renewed appeals for lethal aid but Kerry “didn’t promise anything”.

Hague later called the talks “very productive” and stressed the Syrian coalition’s executive arm “will have a vital role to play in delivering governance, services and support to the Syrian people”.

The US and EU are currently providing non-lethal aid such as communications equipment, and are beginning to distribute food and medical supplies to the Free Syrian Army, but have stopped short of providing weaponry.

The announcement by the Al-Nusra front is likely to bolster assertions by Assad’s regime that it is fighting “terrorists” who want to impose an Islamic state.

“We are always considering a variety of options, 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 US official said.

Wednesday’s talks had focused on ways of changing Assad’s calculations about the outcome of the conflict which is now in its third year and has cost some 70,000 lives, according to the United Nations.

“We need to have this continuing conversation which is why we are going back to Istanbul,” the official said, referring to Kerry’s plans to attend a Friends of Syria meeting on April 20 in the Turkish city.

All sides emphasized “the importance of working together, the importance of them getting themselves more organized, which they said they were in the process of doing,” the official added.

‘One shouldn’t scare with military maneuvers’

Regarding the crisis on the Korean peninsula, Lavrov warned against heating it up with military maneuvers, but stressed that Moscow and Washington had a common stand.

“On North Korea we have no differences with the United States,” Lavrov told journalists in Russian as he met Kerry.

“One just shouldn’t scare anyone with military maneuvers and there’s a chance that everything will calm down,” he added, without specifying which countries he believed were carrying out such military exercises.

Kerry and Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida also met about the North Korea threat, according to a senior State Department official.

“They also discussed the special role China can play in exerting pressure on the North Korean leadership… and he (Kerry) emphasized the importance of continuing to put pressure on North Korea with economic sanctions,” added the spokesman.

On Iran — Syria’s main ally in addition to Russia — the United States reacted with concern after Tehran this week unveiled a new uranium production facility and two extraction mines only days after talks with world powers on its disputed nuclear program ended in deadlock.

“They have continued to move forward, we are very concerned about what they are doing,” a senior State Department official said, asking to remain anonymous.

“We weren’t blindsided about it, because we are rarely blindsided about the things that they are considering. But they did not specify that they were going to do this,” the official said.

The Group of Eight rich nations are Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States. Britain, which holds the rotating chairmanship of the group this year, will host a leaders’ summit in Northern Ireland in June. –

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