Russia to Target Syria Jihadists as Hollande Rallies Support

Updated on
  • French, Russian leaders differ over fate of Syria's Assad
  • Tension over Turkish downing of Russian warplane persists

Russia to Target IS in Syria but Rift Over Assad Remains

France and Russia agreed to coordinate strikes in Syria to increase the focus on jihadist militants, as French President Francois Hollande seeks to rally support against Islamic State before hosting world leaders in Paris next week.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tentative nod toward cooperation with the anti-terror alliance sought by Hollande emerged after the two presidents met for almost three hours in Moscow on Thursday. That followed Hollande’s talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama earlier this week in the wake of the Paris terror attacks.

With Hollande insisting that fighting Islamic State and “neutralizing the terrorists” is “the only objective,” he and Putin said the two sides would exchange information about which areas of Syria are controlled by the country’s moderate anti-government groups.

“We will avoid striking them,” Putin said at a joint press conference after the talks.

The two leaders failed to bridge differences over Assad, an ally of Russia and Iran whose ouster is sought by the U.S.-led coalition. Hollande said Assad can’t play “any role” in Syria’s future, while Putin described him as a “natural ally” in the fight against terrorism whose fate must be decided by his country’s people.

In the wake of the downing of a Russian passenger plane in Egypt in October and the killing of 130 people in Paris on Nov. 13, Hollande is trying to forge a united front involving Russia and the U.S. He is set to host world leaders in Paris for a climate forum next week. But surging tensions between Russia and Turkey, a NATO member, over the downing of a Russian warplane on Tuesday have complicated those efforts.

While Russia will continue to influence the civil war in Syria, the bombing of the Russian jetliner “has forced Moscow to concentrate more on the threat posed by ISIS,”  New York-based Eurasia Group said in an e-mailed research note. “The best that Hollande can hope for is the assurance of greater coordination of strikes.”

European Allies

In Europe, Merkel and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to stand by France in its stepped-up efforts to defeat Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Cameron urged lawmakers to back wider British air strikes in the region, while Merkel plans to deploy German reconnaissance planes.

“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. European nations will “only look strong if they have a political strategy,” he said.

Efforts to rebuild ties between Russia and the U.S. and its allies and form a broader coalition were dealt a setback by the incident with the Russian warplane. Turkey, a member of the U.S.-led coalition in Syria, says the aircraft violated its airspace, which Russia denies. Russia plans to announce economic and trade measures targeting Turkey in the next few days.

Putin has lashed out at the U.S., as well as Turkey, over possible leaking information about Russian flight routes, after the two countries reached an accord on data exchange to ensure air safety over Syria.

“We informed our American partners in advance about where, when, at what altitudes our pilots will work” Putin said. “Either they don’t control what their allies do or they hand the information out right and left, without understanding the consequences.” Putin said he would have to have a “serious” talk with U.S. about it.

Putin hasn’t decided about a request from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to meet during the Paris climate forum Nov. 30, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday.

Bombing Campaign

Russian planes and Syrian troops carried out a massive bombing campaign as soon as the surviving pilot was rescued, killing the rebels in the border area, the Defense Ministry in Moscow said on its website. Turkey has repeatedly asked Russia not to target the area, which is populated by Syrian Turkmen.

Russia began its economic retaliation on Thursday as Putin accused Turkey of pushing relations “into deadlock.” Farm products from Turkey will be subjected to additional border checks and laboratory controls. Oil pared its first weekly gain in a month in part as Putin ruled out military retaliation.

Business ties and investment are also set to suffer. About 40 representatives of Turkish companies who came for an agricultural exposition in southern Russia were fined and expelled Thursday. They entered the country as tourists and didn’t have business visas, Vartan Ter-Saakyan, acting head of the migration service in the Krasnodar region, said on Russian state TV. The group said they’d stated the purpose of their visit at the border.

Striking Syria

Russia’s two-month bombing campaign in Syria has bolstered Assad, who controls a quarter of Syrian territory but 60 percent of its population, after almost five years of civil war that has killed about 300,000 people and displaced millions.

France has stepped up air strikes on Islamic State since the Paris attacks, deploying the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle to boost the number of jets available for bombing to 48 from 12.

Putin said after the Kremlin meeting with Hollande that he expects information-sharing will lead to coordinated action on the battlefield. In contrast, Obama has said the U.S. can’t work with Russia unless the Russian military concentrates its strikes on Islamic State and fully commits to a political solution in Syria.

Reflecting the obstacles, the political process in Syria remains deadlocked. An international conference in Vienna this month adopted a goal to start talks between the Syrian government and opposition by Jan. 1. Outside powers in the negotiations haven’t agreed on which groups in Syria are terrorist organizations and which can take part in the peace talks.

There’s no chance that Russia will formally join the coalition against Islamic State, Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a research group that advises the Kremlin, said by phone. Still, if the two sides can arrange not to interfere with each other, that would already be a “big success,” Lukyanov said.

Watch Next: France Honors Terror Attack Victims

France Honors Terror Attack Victims