Harper, Putin agree to disagree on Syria
Published Saturday, September 8, 2012 7:08AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, September 8, 2012 6:50PM EDT
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Russian President Vladimir Putin disagreed sharply on ways to stop the continuing bloodshed in Syria during the Asia Pacific Summit on Saturday.
While the two leaders were all smiles and handshakes before the cameras, behind closed doors the underlying tensions on how to deal with the slaughter in Syria revealed the persistent rift between Russia and the West.
During a nearly hour-long conversation with Putin on Friday, Harper urged the Russian president to stop obstructing efforts to end the violence in Syria.
For nearly 18 months, President Bashar Assad has battled an uprising that has left at least 23,000 Syrians dead.
Following the meeting, Harper told reporters that on this issue, the two countries are simply not on the same page.
"Obviously the government of Russia and ourselves have very different perspectives on this. Our view is pretty clear that as long as Assad remains in power practicing brutality against his citizens, the situation there is going to become more and more desperate and more and more chaotic for everybody,” he said.
"Obviously, Mr. Putin has a different perspective, but I urged Russia to play a more positive role than it's been playing."
Russia has continuously blocked efforts by the UN Security Council to sanction Syria. Canada and other Western allies have tried to pressure Russia to cut off long-time ally Assad.
Two days before the meeting, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird met with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, and stressed Canada's disapproval of Russia's continued support of the Syrian regime.
Arctic exploration, trade at stake
While Canada may not be a major player in international politics, it has influence with Russia because of the two countries’ trade relationship.
Canada and Russia engage in roughly $3 billion worth of trade a year. Putin said on Saturday that the country is eager to increase the volume of trade with Canada.
Putin also expressed particular interest in Arctic exploration in Canada’s far north, as the melting Arctic ice pack increases accessibility to oil and gas reserves.
After the meeting, the prime minister would not comment on how Putin responded to his criticisms over Syria, saying he does not speak for other leaders.
But a senior government official who was in the room for the meeting described the conversation on Syria to The Canadian Press on the condition of anonymity.
According to the official, Putin told Harper that the West tends to think that going into a country and expelling its leader will solve the problem.
Putin pointed to the instability that followed in Libya after Canada and its NATO partners toppled leader Moammar Gadhafi. Gadhafi was ousted after NATO launched an aggressive UN-sanctioned air campaign.
Putin told Harper that Russia is not friends with the Assad regime; rather, it simply wants stability and a diplomatic solution. He also said that al Qaeda militants are part of the anti-Assad forces.
Harper countered that Canada is not interested in joining another military campaign and has always maintained that a diplomatic solution is the best option. However, the prime minister stressed the government’s position that Assad must go.
The issue of Iran
The two leaders also discussed Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Harper noted Russia’s participation as part of the P5-plus-one group of countries that are trying to negotiate an end to Iran’s standoff with the West over its nuclear program.
In a surprising move on Friday, Canada labeled Iran a state sponsor of terror and said it provides the Assad regime with weapons.
Canada closed its embassy in Iran and expelled all Iranian diplomats living in Canada, giving them four days to leave the country.
On Saturday, Harper cited safety concerns for Canadian diplomats living in Tehran as part of the reason for closing the embassy.
He said political disagreements with Tehran also factored into the decision.
“Whether its (Iran’s) nuclear program, its support for Assad, its anti-Semitism, its support for terrorism -- it just becomes worse and worse and worse,” said Harper.
The prime minister told reporters his decision to close the embassy in Iran was one he'd been contemplating since last year's attack on the British Embassy by mobs.
"Ever since the attack on the British embassy last year, I have been increasingly concerned about the safety of our diplomats. This is a regime that among its many wrongs does not respect normal practices of diplomatic immunity and protection," he said.
The Russian president opened the APEC leaders’ summit Saturday in amid high levels of public protest and dissatisfaction with his presidency.
Putin has been attacked over last month’s two-year prison sentence doled out to members of the punk band “Pussy Riot” for their anti-Putin anthem.
The prison sentence has come to symbolize what many say is Russia’s recent backtracking on democracy.
In the weeks leading up to the summit, the Harper government has remained quiet about the unrest in Russia, stressing that the economy will remain the focus of the meeting.
After the meeting, Harper said that while there are things Putin and his government don't agree on, "I'll always say that our conversations are always extremely frank on these issues."
With files from The Canadian Press