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France and Russia fight as allies in Syria

Med & South

France and Russia fight as allies in Syria

Putin and Hollande in Paris, 2 October 2015. They will meet in Moscow on 26 November [The Kremlin]

France and Russia bombed Islamic State targets in Syria yesterday (17 November), punishing the group for attacks in Paris and against a Russian airliner that together killed 353 people, and made the first tentative steps toward a possible military alliance.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a coordinated onslaught in Paris on Friday (13 November) and the downing of the Russian jet over Sinai on 31 October, saying they were in retaliation for French and Russian air raids in Iraq and Syria.

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>> Read: Islamists kill more than 120 in multiple Paris attacks

Still reeling from the Paris carnage that killed 129 people, France made an unprecedented appeal for European Union support, and investigators said they were making progress in unravelling the plot, which was hatched in Syria and nurtured in Belgium.

>> Read: France ‘at war’

Seven attackers died on Friday night, but video footage suggested that two other men were directly involved in the operation and subsequently escaped, not one as previously said.

Police also discovered two places in Paris where the militants probably stayed before the violence and also found a third car abandoned in the city that was used in the operation.

In Moscow, the Kremlin acknowledged that a bomb had destroyed the jet last month, killing 224 people. President Vladimir Putin vowed to hunt down those responsible and intensify air strikes against Islamists in Syria.

“Our air force’s military work in Syria must not simply be continued,” he said. “It must be intensified in such a way that the criminals understand that retribution is inevitable.”

Syrian targets hit by Russian long-range bombers and cruise missiles on Tuesday included the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, while French warplanes also targeted Raqqa on Tuesday evening – the third such bombing raid within 48 hours.

Paris and Moscow are not coordinating their operations, but French President François Hollande has called for a global campaign against the radicals in the wake of the Paris attacks.

The Kremlin said Putin spoke to Hollande by telephone and had ordered the Russian navy to establish contact with a French naval force heading to the eastern Mediterranean, led by an aircraft carrier, and to treat them as allies.

“We need to work out a plan with them of joint sea and air actions,” Putin told military chiefs.

Russia began air strikes in Syria at the end of September. It has always said its main target is Islamic State, but most of its bombs in the past have hit territory held by other groups opposed to its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Russia is shifting because today Russian cruise missiles hit Raqqa. Maybe today this grand coalition with Russia is possible,” French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told TF1 television channel on Tuesday evening.

Jangling nerves

The West blames Assad for the chaos in Syria and says he must quit as part of any political solution to the crisis – a demand rejected by Syria’s main backers Russia and Iran.

Hollande will visit Putin in Moscow on 26 November, two days after the French leader is due to meet US President Barack Obama in Washington to push for a concerted drive against Islamic State, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.

A French presidential source said Hollande also spoke by phone to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who backed calls for a united front against the militants.

In Brussels, Le Drian invoked the EU’s mutual assistance clause for the first time since the 2009 Lisbon Treaty introduced the possibility, saying he expected help with French operations in Syria, Iraq and Africa.

“This is firstly a political act,” Le Drian told a news conference after a meeting of EU defence chiefs.

The 28 EU member states accepted the French request but it was not immediately clear what assistance would be forthcoming.

With nerves jangling across Europe, German police arrested and then released seven people around Aachen, near the Belgian border, and later cancelled a Germany-Netherlands soccer match in Hanover, evacuating the stadium shortly before kick-off.

One of the targets on Friday was outside a Paris stadium where France was playing Germany in a friendly.

French prosecutors have identified five of the seven dead assailants from Friday – four Frenchmen and a fifth man who was fingerprinted in Greece among refugees last month.

A Syrian passport was found near his body, but a justice source said investigators doubted whether it was his, suggesting the attacker might have been using someone else’s ID.

Police issued a photograph of the militant and asked the public for help in identifying him.

Despite a massive manhunt across Europe, police have failed to find Salah Abdeslam, 26, a Belgian-based Frenchman who is believed to have played a central role in both planning and executing the deadly mission.

Abdeslam drove back to Belgium from Paris early on Saturday with two friends, who have both been detained. A lawyer for one of the men told Belgian media that French police had pulled over their car three times early on Saturday as they headed to the border, but each time let them continue their journey.

The two men in detention deny any role in the attacks.

‘Don’t scapegoat refugees’

The UM refugee agency and Germany’s police chief urged European countries not to demean or reject refugees because one of the Paris bombers was believed to have slipped into Europe among migrants registered in Greece.

“We are deeply disturbed by language that demonises refugees as a group,” UN spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said after government officials in Poland, Slovakia and the German state of Bavaria cited the Paris attacks as a reason to refuse refugees.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Paris would spare no expense to reinforce and equip its security forces and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism, even though that was bound to involve breaching European budget deficit limits.

“We have to face up to this, and Europe ought to understand,” he told France Inter radio.

The European Commission said it would show understanding to France if additional security spending pushed up its deficit.

As France geared up for a long war, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he would present a “comprehensive strategy” for tackling Islamic State to parliament. British war planes have been bombing the militants in Iraq, but not Syria.

“It is in Syria, in Raqqa, that ISIL has its headquarters and it is from Raqqa that some of the main threat against this country are planned and orchestrated,” Cameron said, referring to Islamic State by one of its many acronyms.

“Raqqa, if you like, is the head of the snake.”