The civil war in Syria is expected to dominate much of the discussion as President Obama sits down tomorrow with the Group of Eight leaders in Northern Ireland, just days after the White House confirmed the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
“They’ll clearly discuss the situation in Syria, to include the most recent chemical weapons assessment that we’ve provided, the efforts that are underway to support both the opposition but also a political settlement in the country,” Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes told reporters Friday.
The Obama administration has said it will provide more “direct support” to the Syrian opposition now that the president’s “red line” has been crossed. The U.S., he added, has “steadily increased both the size and scope of our assistance” to the Supreme Military Council, the armed wing of the Syrian opposition.
“At the same time, you know, this is a fluid situation. So it’s necessary for [the president] to consult with all the leaders at the G-8 about both our chemical weapons assessment and the types of support we’re providing to the opposition,” he added.
The president will also, however, have to sway Assad’s allies, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. Obama and Putin will meet face-to-face at the G-8 summit for the first time in a year.
Russia has publicly questioned American evidence that Assad used chemical weapons and does not agree that Assad must step down from power for a political settlement to be successful.
“What Russia has articulated to us, and publicly, is that they don’t want to see a downward spiral,” Rhodes said. “They don’t want to see a chaotic and unstable situation in the region. They don’t want to see extremist elements gaining a foothold in Syria. And the point that we’ve made to Russia is that the current course in which Assad is not being appropriately pressured to step down from power by those who continue to support him in the international community is bringing about those very outcomes.”
“We still continue to discuss with the Russians whether there’s a way to bring together elements of the regime and the opposition to achieve a political settlement. We have no illusions that that’s going to be easy,” he added.
While the Syrian crisis will overshadow much of the summit agenda, there are many other topics up for discussion, including economic reform, trade and the fight against terrorism.
Obama is expected to defend his administration’s phone and internet surveillance programs as vital counterterrorism tools. “He’ll be able to discuss with the other leaders the importance of these programs in terms of our counterterrorism efforts in particular, the constraints and safeguards that we place on these programs so that they have oversight against potential abuses,” Rhodes said.
“And all of these countries at the G-8 are important counterterrorism partners. And together we’ve worked with them on an intelligence and security relationship to foil terrorist attacks in the United States and in Europe, and of course Russia shares a significant counterterrorism interest with us as well,” he said.
In addition to participating in a series of high-level meetings, the president will also deliver a major address in Northern Ireland at the Belfast Waterfront Convention Center. This will be the president’s first opportunity to address at length the support that the U.S. has provided to the peace process in Northern Ireland and to the development of its economy.
After two days of summit meetings, the president will travel to Berlin, where he will meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck, and deliver a major address at the historic Brandenburg Gate.
The short three-day trip to Europe will be also a family affair for the president. The first lady and daughters Sasha and Malia will be joining him.
Mrs. Obama and her daughters will attend the president’s speech in Belfast and then break off to travel to Dublin, while the president is busy with summit meetings. There, they will tour Trinity College, Ireland’s oldest university and “explore the archives that they’ve gathered to document the Obamas’ Irish ancestry,” Rhodes explained.
The first family will reunite in Berlin.