MOSCOW/BRUSSELS: The leaders of Russia and France avoided each other’s gaze as they made short, stiff statements in the Kremlin Thursday before talks on countering ISIS in Syria.
Francois Hollande wants to unite major powers in a single “grand coalition” to fight the militants behind the Paris attacks but Vladimir Putin’s air force has mostly hit Western-backed rebels combating Syrian President Bashar Assad.
By the end of the evening, Hollande appeared more relaxed and French officials were touting a potentially significant advance in cooperation with Moscow.
“It’s major because of the agreement not to strike groups that are fighting ISIS,” a French official said. “What matters is coordination – the fact that we have a common objective to fight ISIS. It’s the result that matters, destroying Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS].”
After a week of talks with the leaders of the United States, Russia, Britain and Germany, Hollande has secured increased political and military support for his air campaign against ISIS, which claimed responsibility for attacks by gunmen and suicide bombers that killed 130 in France. But his goal of turning the two rival international military alliances waging a proxy war in Syria into a single broad coalition focused on defeating ISIS seems a long way off.
That is chiefly because the U.S.-led coalition including Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as Turkey aims to assist rebels in overthrowing Assad, while the Russian-led team including Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah is allied with his armed forces.
It is also because President Barack Obama is determined to avoid being sucked back into a war in the Middle East, or working militarily with Russia after its annexation of Crimea and support for Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine.
A Western diplomat said the Russians gave Hollande their standard line that “we are not wedded to Assad,” but in practice they show no signs of relinquishing him or grooming a successor.
In military terms, Hollande has secured greater intelligence sharing by Washington which is already helping France hit more ISIS targets, as well as promises of refueling and reconnaissance support from Germany and the prospect of Britain joining in airstrikes, provided parliament approves.
Cyprus and Britain offered to open their east Mediterranean air bases to the French to facilitate airstrikes in Syria, while Berlin and other European partners have agreed to send more peacekeepers to Mali to free up French forces there.
Politically, the president, whose firm response to the Paris attacks has given a small bounce to his record low popularity ratings, won a global wave of sympathy for France.
His voice cracked with emotion at a White House news conference when Obama prefaced his remarks by saying in French: “Nous sommes tous francais” (We are all French).
What Hollande achieved in Moscow remains to be seen. Putin agreed to share intelligence on ISIS activities and to coordinate airstrikes to avoid dangerous incidents.
He also asked Paris to provide a map of forces on the ground fighting ISIS so it could avoid bombing them, according to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
That request highlighted the ambiguity of Moscow’s support.
First it requires an improbable degree of mutual trust to expect Paris to hand over detailed coordinates of Western-backed forces in Syria. Second, it implies that any rebel force not directly fighting ISIS is fair game for Russian bombers.
As part of talks in Vienna on a peace settlement to the civil war, Russia and the West have been trying to define who is considered a “terrorist” in Syria, diplomats say. There is no agreement so far.
Privately, the Russians concede that more than half their strikes so far have been aimed at non-ISIS anti-Assad rebels, a Western diplomat in Moscow said. A Reuters analysis of targets disclosed by the Russian Defense Ministry up to mid-October showed 80 percent were in areas where there were no ISIS positions.
Since then, the ministry has stopped releasing such frequent or detailed data on targets. The data available shows Russia carried out multiple strikes before Nov 2 on Turkish-backed Turkmen rebels just inside northern Syria – a long way from Damascus but close to where a Russian warplane was dramatically shot down by Turkish fighters this week.
But Moscow has been keen to trumpet its recent strikes against ISIS since Russia confirmed that a bomb had brought down a Russian civilian airliner full of tourists over Egypt’s Sinai province last month.
French officials acknowledged before Hollande’s tour that the goal of a “grand coalition” against ISIS was more of a political objective than a practical military proposition.
“We are more inclined to work with Putin at the moment than Obama is,” a senior Paris official said. “We came to the conclusion that we had to work with the Russians and we need to get them on board.”
But French defense officials acknowledge that U.S. military support is much more important than Russian assistance.
“It’s better if they [Russia] stop bombing groups fighting Daesh, and objectively that would be a major positive change on the ground,” one defense aide said. “But the key and structure of any operation against Daesh lies with the United States.”