After Paris attacks, will U.S. and Russia find common cause in Syria?

A woman placed flowers in front of the French embassy in Moscow on Monday. France and Russia have voiced new solidarity against the Islamic State, a partnership likely to draw the United States and Russia closer.
A woman placed flowers in front of the French embassy in Moscow on Monday. France and Russia have voiced new solidarity against the Islamic State, a partnership likely to draw the United States and Russia closer. AP

As Russia forms a new alliance with France and Russian warplanes rain down bombs on Islamic State targets in Syria, the Paris attacks may be nudging Moscow and Washington closer together.

After Russia claimed Tuesday to have carried out 2,300 air strikes over two days against Islamic State targets near its headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, the Pentagon praised the Kremlin for the first time since its military aircraft began bombing in the war-torn country on Sept. 30.

“Those airstrikes, at least from our vantage point, did appear to strike in ISIL-held territory,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook, using a common acronym for the Islamic State, told reporters.

“We welcome any sincere effort on the part of the Russians to play a more constructive role in Syria,” he added.

With Russian warplanes flying the same skies over Raqqa as U.S. aircraft, Moscow also provided Washington with advance notice of the recent bombing operation against the Islamic State, Cook said, as required under an aviation-safety agreement signed last month by the two countries.

Under the Oct. 20 accord, Russia and the United States agreed to set up special radio frequencies over which their pilots could communicate with one another and to maintain a phone hotline between their military leaders to forestall a mid-air collision or other dangerous situations.

The Pentagon has criticized the Kremlin for weeks, claiming Russian aircraft were targeting moderate opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad, including rebels trained and equipped by Washington, and were launching airstrikes in areas where no Islamic State fighters were present.

On Tuesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry emphasized its solidarity with France, tweeting an image Tuesday of a French flag behind a peace sign altered to resemble the silhouette of a supersonic Tupolev TU-160, a key Russian bomber and the world’s largest combat aircraft.

The French ambassador to Moscow, Jean-Maurice Ripert, thanked the Russians for their “empathy and solidarity.” “Russia and France are determined to continue joint anti-terror efforts and to fight for the victory of freedom,” he said.

On Monday, French President Francois Hollande called for Russia and the United States to put aside their differences and joined with France to combat the Islamic State.

In Moscow on Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited the French Embassy and signed a book of condolences about the Paris attacks Friday night that left at least 129 people dead.

“The vile plans of the Islamic State must be stopped,” Lavrov said at the embassy. “Our grief and our anger will help us to step over all nonessential things and unite Russia, France and all countries in the inexorable fight against terrorism, and to form a really global combat coalition.”

Russia’s accelerated air campaign against the Islamic State came as Russian officials announced that they have concluded a bomb downed a Russian Metrojet airliner shortly after it left the Egyptian resort town Sharm El Sheikh bound for St. Petersburg on Oct. 31. All 224 people on board died.

“We can definitely say that this was a terrorist attack,” Russian Federal Security Service chief Alexander Bortnikov told President Vladimir Putin during a televised meeting between the two.

Bortnikov said that a homemade bomb with the explosive equivalent of as much as 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of TNT (trinitrotoluene) had been smuggled onto the plane. The Egyptian branch of the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.

Describing the downing of its commercial jet as an act of war, the Russian Foreign Ministry on Tuesday urged other nations to “consolidate efforts of the international community to exterminate the global terrorist threat.”

The Kremlin urged the U.N. Security Council “to waste no time and finalize a draft resolution on forming a broad anti-terrorist front.” Such an action by the Security Council would shift leadership of the anti-Islamic State campaign away from the United States.

Cook said it was still possible that the United States would include Russia in its coalition against the Islamic State — which Washington claims already has 65 nations.

“We haven’t ruled that out, except that up to this point the Russian actions have been largely in support of the Assad regime, which we believe is counterproductive to the end result of trying to end the Syrian civil war,” Cook said.

But in Congress, even some of the Kremlin’s harshest critics in the past warmed to the idea of closer ties between Moscow and Washington.

Sen. Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican who has pushed for tough economic sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, said the heightened sense of crisis since the Paris attacks last week might require the two countries to put aside their differences in the war against the Islamic State.

“As we learned in 1941, national emergency can create strange bedfellows,” Coats said in remarks on the Senate floor.

Overcoming their ideological differences, the United States and the Soviet Union formed a crucial alliance that helped defeat Nazi Germany in World War II.

Just 20 months ago, Moscow banned Coats and other lawmakers from traveling to Russia because of their harsh criticism over the Ukraine gambit, prompting the Indiana senator to quip, “I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to go on vacation with my family in Siberia.”

James Rosen: 202-383-0014; @jamesmartinrose

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