- French leader in Kremlin talks amid doubts over united front
- Tensions flare over Turkish downing of Russian warplane
French President Francois Hollande and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin called for a “broad coalition” to fight Islamic State militants in Syria, even amid fading chances that a wave of terrorist attacks will become the catalyst for a united front involving Russia and the U.S.
“We must build this broad coalition that I have mentioned to hit terrorism,” Hollande said at the start of talks with Putin at the Kremlin on Thursday. “I am in Moscow with you to see how we can act together, to see how we can coordinate to hit this terrorist group and at the same time find a political solution for Syria.” Putin said that Russia has also suffered from terrorism and understands France’s experience. “All of this is forcing us to combine efforts against a common enemy. We are prepared for this cooperation, Mr. President.”
Before leaving Paris, Hollande, who met with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on Tuesday, reiterated French demands for the eventual ouster of beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been bolstered by a two-month bombing campaign by Russia. His meeting with Putin aims to “draw all the lessons” from the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, Hollande told reporters Thursday.
Efforts to rebuild ties between Russia and the U.S. and its allies have been complicated by a flare-up of tensions over NATO member Turkey shooting down a Russian military jet inside Syria. As the momentum toward reconciliation -- witnessed at a Group of 20 summit 10 days ago -- fades, Obama and Hollande called for restraint from Russia and Turkey to avoid escalation, while also urging Russia to focus its air strikes on Islamic State and avoid hitting moderate opposition to Assad.
Russia said Turkey may have planned the downing of its aircraft, which Putin called “a stab in the back” from accomplices of terrorism, while ruling out a military response. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan maintained that the Russian jet was shot down after failing to heed multiple warnings and crossing into his nation’s airspace. Turkey, along with Gulf states and the U.S., is backing armed opponents to Assad, who is supported by Russia and Iran.
European leaders have moved quickly to aid France’s fight against Islamic State, galvanized by the terror attacks in Paris. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have pledged to stand by France in its stepped-up efforts to defeat the extremist group in Syria and Iraq. Cameron exhorted lawmakers to back wider British air strikes in the region, while Merkel sought support for deploying reconnaissance aircraft.
For all those efforts, there’s no chance of Russia formally joining the coalition forces against Islamic State because of divisions on Syria and the worst confrontation since the Cold War between Russia and the U.S. and Europe over Ukraine, said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a research group that advises the Kremlin.
The impossibility of forging a joint command and sharing intelligence with Russia would preclude a coalition effort, according to a French official with knowledge of Hollande’s objectives. Instead, the French leader hopes to get Putin to agree at least to some common targets, such as Islamic State’s oil business and command centers, the official said before the Moscow visit, asking not to be identified because the discussions are confidential.
The Paris attacks and the Oct. 31 downing of a Russian passenger jet in Egypt, both claimed by Islamic State, have led to a convergence of interests, Lukyanov said by phone. If the two sides can agree on an arrangement to ensure they “don’t interfere with each other,” that in itself would be a “big success,” Lukyanov said.