White House

Obama moves to shore up coalition as rival Russia courts France

France’s President Francois Hollande, left, welcomes European Council President Donald Tusk at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. European Union President Donald Tusk has said it is a political duty to jointly fight extremism, calling it the “greatest challenge of our time.”
France’s President Francois Hollande, left, welcomes European Council President Donald Tusk at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. European Union President Donald Tusk has said it is a political duty to jointly fight extremism, calling it the “greatest challenge of our time.” AP

Under pressure from politicians at home and Russian maneuvering abroad, the Obama administration is moving this week to reassert leadership of the international fight against the Islamic State.

President Barack Obama will meet French President Francois Hollande in Washington on Tuesday for the first in-person talks since Islamic State operatives attacked Paris on Nov. 13 in a rampage that killed 130 people.

That will follow two other high-profile meetings on Monday with allies. Vice President Joe Biden presided over a closed-door gathering of ambassadors representing the 65-nation coalition against the Islamic State Monday afternoon. And Secretary of State John Kerry met with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two major backers of the Syrian opposition.

Russia’s role came up in both Monday meetings, as participants discussed how to broaden the fight against the Islamic State without sacrificing the goal of eventually toppling Syrian President Bashar Assad.

We believe that there is more that can be done if countries are willing to contribute additional resources.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest

Analysts said the Obama administration is responding to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s deeper military involvement in Syria as he tries to force creation of a so-called “grand coalition,” presumably with Russia in a leading role.

Putin’s goal “is very much to demonstrate that Russia is essential and influential and critical to resolving Syria,” said Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Russia was actually pretty important to resolving Syria even before it started bombing, but now that they’re militarily in the game, they’ve made it clear that it’s impossible to think of any solution that doesn’t include them,” Oliker said.

Republicans have long complained that Obama hasn’t been forceful enough in leading the fight against the Islamic State, criticism that’s only grown since the Paris attacks. Even some prominent Democrats have chimed in. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that she didn’t think “the approach is sufficient to the job.”

(The Islamic State is) enormously strong and it has to be dealt with in a very strong manner. This has gone on too long now and it has not gotten better, it’s gotten worse.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Administration officials said plans for a more robust response have been in the works since before Russia’s escalation, but that sensitive intelligence concerns demand that moves be rolled out in a deliberate and calibrated manner.

In recent weeks, the Obama administration has deployed about 50 U.S. special forces as advisers and has increased aid to Arab and Kurdish militias who’ve joined the fight against the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or Daash. The White House hasn’t ruled out more such actions.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that there’s “zero” evidence that Russia’s moves are eroding support for the U.S.-led coalition, noting that the rival blocs diverge on a fundamental point: the future of Assad. The United States and allies still seek his removal, though the priority now is the Islamic State. Russia, working with Iran and the Syrian regime, insists Assad will remain in power.

“They’ve focused on another goal,” Earnest told reporters, referring to the Russians. “And it is not one that has allowed them to build a coalition on nearly the scale of what the United States has built.”

Despite a common enemy in the Islamic State, the U.S. and Russian coalitions have waged separate campaigns save for coordination over airspace.

Only recently has Russia stepped up its targeting of extremists after weeks of pummeling other opposition groups, including those with U.S. backing.

The expansion of targets comes after Moscow admitted that a bomb brought down a Russian passenger jet in Egypt last month, killing 224 people. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.

Putin’s strategy is to blame Obama’s “mishandling” of Syria for the expansion of Islamic State attacks while simultaneously urging more international cooperation to defeat the group, Oliker said.

“These narratives don’t necessarily mesh, but they’re both there and the Russians are cheerfully pushing both forward,” Oliker said. “They’re saying to the United States, ‘It’s all your fault, but we must stand together anyway – and we’ll occasionally point out that it’s all your fault.’”

While the United States cautiously welcomes Russia’s help as long as the Islamic State is the main target, officials have kept cooperation to a minimum and remain nervous about allies drifting closer to Moscow as a result of perceived American inaction.

Since the Paris massacre, Putin has been on a charm offensive with the French. He’s ordered his navy to treat French forces in the eastern Mediterranean as allies, released Russian Defense Ministry images of ground crews writing “For Paris” on bombs to be dropped on Syrian targets, and even offered to send a puppy to France to honor a police dog that was killed in a counterterrorism raid in Paris.

After meeting Tuesday with Obama, Hollande is scheduled for talks with Putin later in the week.

U.S. officials are betting that their shared long-term goal with the French for the removal of Assad will outweigh Hollande’s frustration with his American allies for not playing as muscular a role as Russia in Syria. And they haven’t discounted the possibility that Moscow will continue playing nice, which could lead to at least a loose version of the “grand coalition” the Russians seek.

“Recently we’ve seen them start to take some strikes toward ISIL, which we welcome, and they’ve been playing a positive role on the diplomatic front,” said a State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to freely discuss sensitive diplomacy. “But it’s still out – I’m not sure what their intentions are, and we’re trying to determine that.”

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam

Anita Kumar: 202-383-6017, @anitakumar01