Obama tells Russia, Turkey to ease off, focus on ISIS

US President urges both nations to resolve airspace dispute and focus on 'real enemy'

US President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in Paris on Dec 1.
US President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in Paris on Dec 1.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON • United States President Barack Obama has urged Turkey and Russia to reduce tensions, a week after Turkish jets shot down a Russian warplane.

After talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Paris on Tuesday on the side-lines of a climate summit, Mr Obama reaffirmed US support for "Turkey's right to defend itself and its airspace". But he stressed Russia and Turkey should "de-escalate" their row to resolve the issue and focus instead on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the real enemy.

But hopes of de-escalation suffered a setback when Russia officially announced a list of sanctions to be imposed on Turkey.

Russian Defence Ministry officials also hit back with claims that Turkey was the main consumer of ISIS oil and that Mr Erdogan and his family were involved in doing business with the militants, citing satellite imagery which they said showed oil tanker trucks heading from ISIS territory to Turkey. Sources added that Moscow may also freeze work on a gas pipeline project.

Mr Obama's words came as the Pentagon said the US would increasingly rely on special operations forces to battle ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria, where they have seized huge swathes of land.

Stressing that US support for its Nato ally's security remained steadfast, Mr Obama told Mr Erdogan that ISIS must be pursued by all sides, echoing a message he delivered to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday. "We all have a common enemy, and that is ISIL, and I want to make sure that we focus on that threat," Mr Obama said, using another acronym for ISIS.

He said Turkey had made progress in sealing its border with Syria but ISIS was still exploiting gaps to bring in foreign fighters and sell oil: "We have to choke off how they make money. We've got to choke off their ability to bring in new fighters," he said.

Tensions between Russia and Turkey have complicated US efforts to prod Moscow into steering its military might towards ISIS rather than Syrian opposition groups.

Mr Obama said he did not expect a quick reversal of Mr Putin's strategy in Syria, but Moscow may eventually align itself with the US-led coalition fighting ISIS. "I think Mr Putin understands... for him to simply get bogged down in an inconclusive and paralysing civil conflict is not the outcome that he's looking for."

Russia on Tuesday approved sanctions to be imposed on Turkey for the jet's downing. The list included fruit, vegetables and chicken. It also halted the sale of tours to Turkey.

Mr Erdogan yesterday vowed that Turkey would not retaliate against the sanctions. "(Russia) is our strategic partner, we will continue to provide them with products, including food," he told reporters on board his plane. Accusing Moscow of reacting in an "emotional" way, he said there was "no question" of Turkey retaliating against Russian citizens living in Turkey.

Russia supplies more than half of Turkey's natural gas, but Mr Erdogan said he was not troubled by the risk of Russia cutting exports. "This nation is accustomed to hardship," he added, emphasising that Turkey had other suppliers.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2015, with the headline 'Obama tells Russia, Turkey to ease off, focus on ISIS'. Subscribe