LOUGH ERNE, United Kingdom - The conflict in syria was set to dominate a G8 summit starting in Northern Ireland on Monday, with russia facing pressure to back away from its support for President Bashar al-Assad.
Increasingly isolated from fellow G8 leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin was likely to get a frosty reception at the summit in the lake-fringed Lough Erne golf resort. Planned face-to-face talks between Putin and US President Barack Obama were set to be especially prickly, with both leaders now offering military support to opposing sides in the war.
Summit host Prime Minister David Cameron, who had initially hoped for talks to focus on finance and trade, said Monday his priority was to ensure a peace conference on the syria conflict takes place later this year.
Obama's Air Force One jet landed in a rainy Belfast shortly after 8:35 am (0735 GMT) and he headed to a local conference centre to give a speech to an audience of 2,000 mostly young people, touching on Northern Ireland's peace process.
Roads in and out of Belfast were closed to facilitate the president's visit. Hundreds of police 4x4s lined the streets, while a police helicopter patrolled the skies over the city.
Thousands of extra police officers were deployed to the province ahead of the G8 summit, in the biggest security operation in Northern Ireland's troubled history.
In his talks with Putin, Obama will emphasise that Washington wants to keep alive the mooted peace conference in Geneva, which appears to be slipping down the list of priorities.
But on the eve of the summit Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made it clear that few of the G8's other leaders expected Putin to change his position.
"I don't think we should fool ourselves. This is the G7 plus one," Harper told reporters in Dublin. "Unless there's a big shift of position on his part, we're not going to get a common position with him at the G8."
French President Francois Hollande had also landed in Northern Ireland and was due for private talks with Putin.
Cameron will host Obama, Putin, Hollande, Harper, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta at the summit.
The British premier may face some uncomfortable questions after documents leaked by US former spy Edward Snowden appeared to show that Britain spied on foreign delegates at the 2009 London G20 meetings.
Among the officials targeted were delegates from Nato ally Turkey and from fellow Commonwealth state South Africa, said British newspaper The Guardian.
Asked whether he could guarantee his guests that no similar operation was in place as they gathered at Lough Erne, Cameron would not be drawn.
"We never comment on security or intelligence issues and I am not about to start now," he said.
The British hosts of the gathering also want to forge consensus on cracking down on tax evasion and making multinational companies more transparent.
In a bright spot at the summit, leaders are expected to announce the formal start of negotiations on a vast free trade pact between the European Union and the United States.
EU nations agreed to go ahead with the talks after late-night discussions in Luxembourg on Friday to convince France that its prized cultural industries would not be under threat from the pact. Officials have said the deal could be worth more than 200 billion euros ($265 billion) annually to the European and US economies.
Such a deal is touted as a potentially huge boost to business, economic growth and job creation, but the culture issue is seen as potentially offering a bargaining chip to the US side.
The head of the EU executive, Jose Manuel Barroso, told reporters that Obama and European leaders "will give the go-ahead" for the start of talks and said a deal would have huge potential.
"Two years ago, very few would have bet that the US and the EU would have been able to launch this free trade and investment partnership," Barroso said.
"This can be a game-changer, not just for the transatlantic area, the United States and Europe, but for the world," he said.
Barroso had earlier weighed in with an unusually outspoken criticism of France for its "reactionary" behaviour to defend its audiovisual and cultural industry.
"Some say they belong to the left, but in fact they are culturally extremely reactionary," the president of the European Commission said in an interview with the International Herald Tribune on Monday. French President Francois Hollande reacted spikily as he arrived at the summit.
"I do not want to believe that the president of the European Commission could have made these statements on France," he told reporters.
If the EU-US deal is done, it would be the world's largest Free Trade Agreement (FTA): bilateral trade in goods last year was worth some 500 billion euros ($670 billion), with another 280 billion euros in services and trillions in investment flows. The EU says an FTA would add about 119 billion euros annually to the EU economy, and 95 billion euros for the United States.