France halts push for Syria coalition with Russia

Hollande and Obama in the White House on 24 November. [French Presidency]

During a visit to the US yesterday (24 November), French President François Hollande abandoned plans to include Russia in an international coalition against Islamic State, following the Paris attacks, in which 130 people lost their lives.

Hollande came to Washington after meeting with his British counterpart, and before similar sessions with the leaders of Germany, Russia and Italy.

>>Read: UK offers help as France gets ready to intensify air strikes against IS

France has spearheaded a rapprochement with Russia, with the military forces of the two countries jointly bombing Islamic State targets in Syria, and the Russian President instructing his generals to treat the French as allies.

>>Read: France and Russia fight as allies in Syria

This rapprochement has benefitted from the support of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, but has been decried by some member states, who worry that closer ties with Russia are inappropriate until the Ukraine crisis is not solved.

>> Read: US, Russia and EU should work together to combat ISIS, says Juncker

>> Read: Lithuanian FM: EU should put more pressure on Russia

Speaking at a news conference with Hollande, Obama made it clear that there were conditions for Russia joining the Western coalition in Syria.

“We agree that Russia could play a more constructive role if it were to shift the focus of its strikes to defeating ISIL,” Obama said, emphasizing the words “could” and “if.” A resolution of the crisis requires “a political transition away from Assad,” the US President added.

Both Obama and Hollande have insisted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down as part of any political settlement of the four-year-old civil war that has fuelled the rise of the Islamic State. They have also called on the Russians to stop bombing opposition forces backed by the West and to focus their firepower on the Islamic State.

In Washington, Hollande said Assad had “no place” in the political transition of Syria. “Since he was the problem, he cannot be the solution,” he added.

Obama followed up, saying that until there would be no “strategic change” in this regards, cooperation with Russia would be “very difficult”.

But French efforts to better coordinate the action against Islamic State suffered their biggest blow by Turkey’s downing of a Russian SU-24 fighter at the Turkish-Syrian border. The incident took place just before Hollande met Obama.

>>Read: Putin calls Turkey ‘accomplices of terrorists’ after Russian jet downing

Messages to the EU

In a message to the EU, Obama made reference to the Union’s resistance to sharing information on airline passengers. “I have been talking to our European partners for quite some time now about the need for better intelligence-sharing, passenger name records, working to ensure that when people enter into Europe, particularly now, that the information across various borders is shared on a timely basis,” he said.

Another message Obama communicated is that unlike the EU, the USA accept refugees only after thorough checks to make sure they don’t represent a terrorist threat.

“Nobody who sets foot in America goes through more screening than refugees,” Obama said.

NATO half-supportive of Turkey

Meanwhile in Brussels, NATO ambassadors called on Ankara to show “cool-headedness” on Tuesday following an emergency meeting following the shooting down of the Russian warplane.

Diplomats present at the meeting told Reuters that while none of the 28 NATO envoys defended Russia’s actions, many expressed concern that Turkey did not escort the Russian warplane out of its airspace.

“There are other ways of dealing with these kinds of incidents,” said one diplomat who declined to be named.

Russia’s defence ministry said on Tuesday it viewed the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey as an unfriendly act and it was working on a package of measures to respond to such incidents.

“We consider the actions of the Turkish Air Force an unfriendly act,” the ministry said in a statement, adding that it had issued an official protest to the Turkish defence attaché.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday he would not visit Turkey as planned on 25 November following the incident.

Speaking to reporters in the southern Russian city of Sochi, Lavrov advised Russians not to visit Turkey and said the threat of terrorism there was the no less than in Egypt, where a bomb attack brought down a Russian passenger plane last month.

Russia President Vladimir Putin stressed that the Russian plane did not represent any threat for Turkey.

Russia’s state tourism agency, Rostourism, has recommended suspending sales of tour packages to Turkey following the downing of the Russian fighter jet in Syria, RIA news agency reported. 

Other Russian countermeasures could follow. Dmitri Trenin, Russia analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Guardian that Russia’s relations with Turkey would be revised completely, that air travel would be suspended to divert millions of Russians from the Turkish holiday resorts, and that the Turkish Stream pipeline project would be cancelled or at least put on hold. 

Subscribe to our newsletters