Putin, Hollande agree to coordinate on ISIS fight but divisions remain

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a joint news conference with his French counterpart Francois Hollande (not pictured) after the meeting in Moscow, Russia, on Nov 26, 2015. French President Francois Hollande is in Moscow to push for a strong
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a joint news conference with his French counterpart Francois Hollande (not pictured) after the meeting in Moscow, Russia, on Nov 26, 2015. French President Francois Hollande is in Moscow to push for a stronger coalition against Islamic State militants in Syria. PHOTO: EPA

MOSCOW (AFP) – French President Francois Hollande and Russian leader Vladimir Putin agreed on Thursday (Nov 26) to coordinate strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group, but differences over Syria’s future hampered efforts to bring Russia into a wider alliance to fight the jihadists.

Putin indicated France and Russia would swap data to help identify ISIS targets in Syria, as opposed to other groups opposed to the country’s leader, Bashar al-Assad.

The two countries agreed to “exchange information about which territories are occupied by the healthy part of the opposition rather than terrorists, and will avoid targeting them with our airstrikes,” Putin said.

“The strikes against Daesh (ISIS) will be intensified and be the object of coordination,” Hollande said at a press conference after their 90-minute meeting at the Kremlin.

The agreement to focus on ISIS targets was the most concrete progress from the final leg of Hollande’s marathon push to weld together a broad alliance to crush ISIS after the Nov 13 terror attacks in Paris.

But the French leader failed to gain any pledge from Putin over helping the US-led coalition which is targeting ISIS.

Putin is fuming over Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter on the Syrian border and deep splits remain between Russia and the West over Assad’s fate.

Hollande reiterated that Assad, a key Moscow ally, “has no place in the future of Syria”.

Russia has been flying a bombing campaign in Syria since Sept 30 at Assad’s request while a rival US-led coalition is carrying out strikes against ISIS.

Although both Russia and the US coalition oppose ISIS, Washington and its allies say Moscow is primarily targeting moderates fighting the regime in Damascus, rather than the jihadists.

Prior to his visit to Moscow, Hollande gained support from Britain, whose premier David Cameron set out his case Thursday for air strikes against ISIS in Syria.

Cameron said Britain should not “wait until an attack takes place here” before acting, saying it was “morally” unacceptable to be “content with outsourcing our security to our allies”.

A vote is expected to be held early next week and MPs look set to approve the move, meaning the first British air strikes on Syria could come within days.

Cameron has also offered France the use of a British air base in Cyprus for flying missions against the jihadists.

In Berlin, Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday (Nov 26) said Germany could offer France Tornado reconnaissance jets, a naval frigate, satellite images and aerial refuelling to back the fight against IS.

“France was struck to the bone by the horrific attacks by the IS but we know that this inhumane rage can hit us or other societies at any time too,” Von der Leyen said.

Germany on Wednesday said it would send 650 soldiers to Mali to provide some relief to French forces fighting jihadists there.

In contrast, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, in talks with Hollande in Paris, offered only vague support for “a coalition of greater and greater strength” able to destroy IS.

France last week invoked a clause requiring EU member states to provide military assistance after the Paris attacks.

Hollande also received what was perceived to be a cool response from US President Barack Obama when he flew to Washington on Tuesday (Nov 24), with the US reluctant to step up military action in Syria without a clear strategy or political track in place.

Hollande’s diplomatic foray was thrown off track after Turkey shot down a Russian jet on the Syrian border on Tuesday, an incident Moscow described as a “planned provocation”.

The sole surviving pilot said he received no warning and the aircraft did not violate Turkish air space, but the Turkish military released audio recordings claiming to show the jet was repeatedly warned to change course.

The downing featured heavily in Putin’s press conference with Hollande with the Kremlin strongman dismissing as “rubbish” claims by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Ankara did not know the jet was Russian.

Putin also lashed out at Washington, saying that it had been informed of where the jet would be “and we were hit exactly there and at that time”.

Moscow recently intensified its strikes in Syria after ISIS claimed it brought down a Russian passenger plane over the Sinai.

Ankara and Moscow have backed opposing forces in the four-year Syrian conflict, with Turkey supporting rebel groups opposed to Assad, while Russia is one of his last remaining allies.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed a proposal by Hollande to close off the Syria-Turkey border, considered the main crossing point for foreign fighters seeking to join ISIS.

“We would be ready to seriously consider the necessary measures for this,” Lavrov said.