A united U.S.-French vow to expand the fight against the Islamic State in the wake of the Paris attacks was greatly complicated Tuesday by the shootdown of a Russian warplane.
President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande emerged from meetings at the White House with a pledge to increase air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, bolster intelligence sharing, and push commercial airlines to exchange passenger information to better block air travel by terrorists.
The French president’s brief visit to Washington, along with meetings this week with the leaders of Britain, Germany, Italy and Russia, is part of an aggressive push to get world leaders to escalate their campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daash, which took responsibility for the attacks in Paris that killed 130.
Hollande had wanted the United State and Russia to work more closely together. Already unlikely, that goal was made all the more challenging when Turkey shot down a Russian military aircraft near the Syrian border after it ignored multiple warnings and entered Turkish airspace. Turkey is a NATO ally of both France and the U.S.
Obama and Hollande said Russia would be welcome in their global anti-extremist coalition – but only as long as it concentrates efforts on striking the Islamic State rather than on protecting the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad.
“France can work with Russia, if Russia concentrates its military action on Daash, against ISIL, and if Russia fully commits to the political position in Syria,” said Hollande.
Obama touted the U.S.-led 65-country coalition fighting the Islamic State, which has conducted 8,000 airstrikes. He dismissed Russia and Iran, backers of Assad, as a “coalition of two.”
“Russia is the outlier,” Obama said. “We hope that they refocus their attention on what is the most substantial threat, and that they serve as a constructive partner.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin was focused instead Tuesday on the loss of its aircraft and the fate of its crew.
He said the aircraft was downed over Syria while pilots were targeting “terrorists” in the northern areas around Latakia, specifically militants with Russian origins, and posed no threat to Turkey. He threatened “serious consequences” over the incident.
In the remarks, carried by Russian news agency RT, Putin denounced the downing as “a stab in the back carried out by the accomplices of terrorists.”
Both Obama and Hollande said they would work with NATO and speak to the Turks and Russians to find out what happened.
“My top priority is to ensure that this does not escalate,” Obama said. “Hopefully this is moment where we can all step back.”
The downing of the SU-24 strike fighter could not have come at a worse time for the complex relationship between Russia, Turkey and the U.S.-led coalition as the Syrian civil war continues to draw in a series of outside actors with differing agendas.
“Russia and Turkey...have a long history of rivalry, and the competition of claim and counter-claim about where the plane was flying when hit is no surprise,” said Barry Strauss, a military historian and chairman of the History Department at Cornell University.
Karen Dawisha, director of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at Miami University in Ohio, said Russia has been assessing NATO’s responses in several locations – the Baltic, the North Sea, southwest of the United Kingdom – and that Turkey was the latest test zone.
Russian officials had signed agreements with Turkey to stop the violations and continued testing NATO’s patience. On Tuesday, she said, Moscow got its response.
“They can be under no illusion that NATO is well protected in the south and that Turkey is a reliable NATO member and that NATO is not going to put up with this,” Dawisha said. “The coolness of (Obama’s) response was, ‘You think we’re idiots? We know what you’re doing and you won’t get away with it. You were warned, now stop it.’”
After weeks of waging a separate bombing campaign, mainly targeting Syrian rebels who don’t belong to the Islamic State, Russia began striking the extremist group in earnest after a bomb brought down a Russian passenger plane last month, killing all 224 on board.
With the West focused on the threat from the Islamic State, Russia protecting its ally in Syrian President Bashar Assad and Turkey openly trying to overthrow Assad by supporting a wide range of rebel groups, all sides had feared a violent incident that could quickly escalate a situation that long ago exceeded the definition of volatile.
The United States had taken only incremental military action in recent months, sending in a small team of special forces in an advisory role and beefing up aid to Kurdish and Arab militias on the ground.
The Obama administration also has touted as a positive sign the resumption of talks among key players on how to reach a negotiated political settlement to the conflict.
But that effort requires Russia as an interlocutor for the Assad regime.