President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other G-8 leaders attempted to speak with one voice Tuesday on seeking a negotiated Syrian peace settlement — yet couldn’t publicly agree on whether this means President Bashar Assad must go.
Their declaration at the end of the two-day Group of Eight summit sought to narrow the diplomatic chasm between Assad’s key backer, Russia, and Western leaders on starting peace talks in Geneva to end a two-year civil war that has claimed an estimated 93,000 lives.
G-8 leaders also published sweeping goals for tightening the tax rules on globe-trotting corporations that long have exploited loopholes to shift profits into foreign shelters that charge little tax or none. But that initiative, aimed at forcing the Googles and Apples of the world to pay higher taxes, contained only aspirations, not binding commitments.
The declaration on Syria said the country needs a new coalition government with “a top leadership that inspires public confidence,” a definition that to British, French or American eyes would rule out Assad. It made no reference to sending U.S., British or French weapons to rebels, an option being kept open by the three G-8 members.
Russia refused to back any declaration that made Assad’s ouster an explicit goal, arguing that it would be impossible to start peace talks with a predetermined outcome.
Reflecting growing unease at the behavior of Muslim extremists in the ranks of Syria’s splintered opposition forces, the G-8 declaration said participants in any peace talks must agree to expel al-Qaida-linked fighters from the country.
The declaration condemned human rights abuses committed by government forces and rebels alike, and called on both sides to permit access by U.N.-led chemical weapons experts trying to investigate the contentious claims of chemical weapons use.
In its only concrete commitment, the plan pledges a further $1.5 billion in aid for Syrians driven from their homes by the conflict: 4.2 million within Syria and 1.6 million more taking refuge in neighboring countries. The G-8 noted that the new funds would cover only part of the United Nations’ 2013 appeal for $5.2 billion in Syria-directed aid.
Earlier, G-8 leaders announced new goals to combat tax avoidance by multinational companies. In a joint statement, they said tax authorities should share information “to fight the scourge of tax evasion” and make it harder for companies to “shift their profits across borders to avoid taxes.”
Britain heralded the agreement as a good first step toward creating a new environment of corporate transparency. A key principle in the plan would require multinationals to declare how much tax they pay in each country.
U.S. Senate hearings this year investigating the tax payment policies of Apple found that the smartphone and computer innovator also has developed some of the world’s most innovative tax-avoidance policies. Apple admitted it used, legally, two companies registered in Ireland — but in one case managed from Nevada — to manage much of the company’s non-U.S. profits worldwide, and paid taxes at a rate of less than 1 percent.
British lawmakers likewise have sharply criticized Google UK for registering all of its regional sales in neighboring Ireland, which charges half the rate of corporate tax.
Many of the world’s leading companies employ complex corporate structures involving multiple subsidiaries in several countries to minimize the tax bills in their home nation. One such maneuver, called the “double Irish with a Dutch sandwich,” allows foreign companies to send profits through one Irish company, then to a Dutch company and finally to a second nominally Irish company that is headquartered in a usually British tax haven.
Campaigners for greater tax transparency appealed to the G-8 to ensure that reforms benefited the poorest countries of Africa, South America and Asia as well as the rich West. Anti-poverty campaigners stressed that shell companies provide a key mechanism for embezzling government funds in corrupt countries.
Cameron says Britain will lead by example by creating a registry of who really owns companies, and will consider making it public — an idea viewed with skepticism by many other countries fearful of scaring companies out of their jurisdictions.
And Britain itself stands accused of being one of the world’s main links in the tax-avoidance chain. Several of Britain’s own island territories — including Jersey, Guernsey and the British Virgin Islands — serve as shelters and funnel billions each week through the City of London.