Europe Readies Islamic State Fight as Hollande Courts Putin

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  • Cameron and Merkel seek support for increased air power
  • Hollande aims to find common ground with Putin on Syria

European leaders moved quickly to aid France’s fight against Islamic State as French President Francois Hollande traveled to Moscow to seek tighter coordination of his war planning with Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Galvanized by the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris that killed 130 civilians, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel 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.

Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande

Photographer: Patrick Kovarik/AFP via Getty Images

“We shouldn’t be content with outsourcing our security to our allies,” Cameron told a packed House of Commons in London on Thursday. “If we believe that action can help protect us, then we should be with our allies. If we won’t act now, when our friend and ally France has been struck in this way, then our allies in the world can be forgiven for asking: ‘If not now, when?’”

The shift toward a united European military response to Islamic State’s attacks in Paris marked a new projection of power for the region, with the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle stationed in the eastern Mediterranean and British Tornado fighter-bombers poised to join the attack. Hollande’s diplomatic efforts this week took him to Washington for talks with U.S. President Barack Obama in addition to meetings with Cameron and Merkel.

“It is a fairly robust response but it’s also quite clear that it’s really only France in combat and everybody else supporting,” said Jan Techau,  director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels. “I can see how it has a purpose and the Europeans don’t want to look weak. But I think they’ll only look strong if they have a political strategy that it serves.”

Cameron told lawmakers that Islamic State poses an “urgent” threat to Britain and signaled he wants to call a vote in the House of Commons next week. While ruling out ground forces, the premier said the U.K.’s aircraft would be able to gather intelligence, identify targets and make precision strikes.

Two years after the U.K. Parliament rejected a bid by Cameron to launch strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, the response Thursday was mixed and not clearly along party lines. Julian Lewis, the chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, was one of a number of Conservatives expressing skepticism about Cameron’s suggestion that there were 70,000 moderate opposition troops in Syria. On the opposition Labour side, Yvette Cooper, one of the unsuccessful candidates for the party leadership, said the prime minister had “made a strong moral and legal case.”

While Germany’s contribution would amount primarily to a handful of reconnaissance jets, Merkel must nonetheless gain parliamentary approval and win over a skeptical public that’s long been averse to military engagements because of the country’s Nazi past. The chancellor said she’d respond swiftly to Hollande’s request for measures beyond sending more troops to Mali to alleviate French forces.

“If the French president asks me to think about what we can do beyond that, then it’s our task to consider it -- and we will react very quickly,” Merkel said Wednesday in Paris. “Islamic State won’t be persuaded by words; Islamic State must be fought with military means.” 

Putin Talks

More complicated for Hollande will be finding common cause with Putin during their meeting Thursday evening at the Kremlin. Initial signals of a joint line of attack between the U.S.-European alliance and Russia were upended this week by the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by NATO-member Turkey.

Obama and European leaders have called for restraint to avoid any escalation between Russia and Turkey, struggling to salvage the momentum gained at the Group of 20 summit in Antalya 10 days ago. The U.S., which is already engaged in air strikes against Islamic State, has pressed Russia to focus its bombing campaign on the radical group rather than the moderate opposition to Assad’s regime.

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.