Putin, Cameron still hopeful on Syria peace talks

LONDON (AP) — The leaders of Britain and Russia said Sunday they’re hopeful that Syria’s warring factions can hammer out their differences at upcoming peace talks tentatively planned for next month in Geneva.

Speaking at British Prime Minister’s David Cameron’s Downing Street office, Russian President Vladimir Putin said both nations are still pressing for talks between representatives of Syrian ruler Bashar Assad and the disparate rebel movement that seeks to drive him from power.

Asked whether the proposed introduction of a “no fly zone” over parts of Syria or moves by Western powers to funnel weapons to Syria’s rebels had sabotaged the peace talks, Putin said no.

“I don’t think that the idea of the conference is buried for good,” he said. “This is one of the most reasonable and acceptable ways of solving this problem. Only by joint efforts is it possible to definitively settle the problem and persuade the warring sides to sit down for talks.”

Last week, the White House announced the Obama administration has agreed, after months of hesitation, to start supplying the rebels with upgraded military aid. Russia and European powers, including Britain and France, are at loggerheads over the issue of supplying arms to the different sides of the Syrian conflict, with Russia sending weapons to Assad’s military, while reacting angrily to any move on the part of Western nations to do the same to his opponents.

Putin defended the distinction Sunday, saying that Russia was providing arms “to the legitimate government of Syria in full conformity with the norms of international law.”

Cameron acknowledged that Russia and Britain are in opposition but told journalists there is still common ground.

“It is no secret that President Putin and I have had our disagreements on some of these issues, but what I take from our conversation today is that we can overcome these differences if we recognize that we share some fundamental aims: to end this conflict; to stop Syria breaking apart; to let the Syrian choose who governs them; and to take the fight to the extremists and defeat them.”

Although Britain was one of the leaders in the push to lift the European arms embargo on Syrian rebel forces, Cameron’s government faces a considerable amount of opposition should it move to arm the revolutionaries.

Lawmakers from across the political spectrum have expressed unease with the idea of sending weapons to Syria, with many warning they could end up in the hands of Muslim extremists loyal to al-Qaida.

Julian Lewis, from Cameron’s Conservative Party, said earlier Sunday that sending weapons to the rebels would be “suicidal.”

“In the past we have gone to war because we feared that weapons of mass destruction might fall into the hands of al-Qaida, and it would be absolutely crazy to assist al-Qaida to get their hands on the very sorts of weapons we must keep away from them at all costs,” he told BBC radio.

Putin was in London ahead of the G8 summit of world leaders in Northern Ireland, which begins next week. The topic of Syria — and what to do end the conflict there — is not on the official agenda but is expected to be discussed.

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