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Hollande to press Obama on Russia cooperation in ISIS fight

File-French President Francois Hollande meets with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama will stand in solidarity with French President Francois Hollande at the White House on Tuesday, 11 days after ISIS launched a series of deadly attacks in Paris. But Hollande is likely to leave Washington without firm backing for his call to bring Russia into a new coalition to fight the extremists.

Hollande's visit to Washington is part of a diplomatic offensive to get the international community to bolster the campaign against the Islamic State militants. The group is believed to have been behind the Nov. 13 attacks that killed 130 people in Paris, as well as separate attacks in Lebanon and Turkey and the downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt.

As ISIS expands its reach outside its bases in Syria and Iraq, Obama is facing increased pressure at home and abroad to ramp up U.S. efforts to destroy the militants. So far, Obama is resisting calls to either change or significantly ramp up his approach, and instead is focused on getting other countries to offer more counterintelligence, humanitarian and military assistance.

"The United States is certainly pulling more than our own weight," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. "And we believe that there is more that can be done if countries are willing to contribute additional resources."

The U.S. campaign has centered largely on launching airstrikes, while training and assisting security forces on the ground in Iraq. Efforts to train and equip moderate rebel groups in Syria have struggled, though Obama has authorized the deployment of 50 special operations forces to the country to jumpstart the program.

France has stepped up its airstrikes following the Paris attacks, relying in part on U.S. intelligence to hit targets in Raqqa, ISIS's stronghold in Syria. British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Monday he would seek parliamentary approval this week for Britain to begin airstrikes as well.

Hollande wants the U.S.-led coalition to start cooperating with Russia, which is also launching airstrikes in Syria. While Russian President Vladimir Putin says his country is targeting ISIS militants, the U.S. contends Moscow is going after rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad, a Kremlin ally.

Last week, Hollande called for the U.S. and Russia to set aside their policy divisions over Syria and "fight this terrorist army in a broad, single coalition." But his office acknowledges that "coordination" sounds like a far more realistic goal.

"We are not talking about a command center. We are talking about coordination of methods and exchange of intelligence," a French diplomat said on Monday. The diplomat wasn't authorized to publicly discuss the subject and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Earnest said the U.S. would "continue the conversation" with Putin but suggested Obama would make no promises to Hollande during Tuesday's visit.

From Washington, Hollande will travel to Moscow for meetings with Putin.

Beyond their discussions on military cooperation, Obama and Hollande are expected to discuss diplomatic efforts to achieve a political transition in Syria. The U.S. and France support a transition that would lead to the departure of Assad, who has overseen a civil war in his country that created a vacuum for ISIS to thrive.

While Russia is backing a new diplomatic effort in Syria, Moscow still refuses to support steps that explicitly call for removing Assad from power.

The quagmire in Syria has dragged on for nearly five years, and criticism of Obama's strategy appears only to grow louder.

On Sunday, both Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Leon Panetta, Obama's former defense secretary, said the U.S. effort wasn't measuring up. Feinstein called for more aggressive action and additional special operations forces in Syria.

"I don't think the approach is sufficient to the job," Feinstein said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

 

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