By Elizabeth Pineau and Paul Taylor
The leaders of Russia and France avoided each other’s gaze as they made short, stiff statements in the Kremlin on Thursday before talks on countering Islamic State in Syria.
Francois Hollande wants to unite major powers in a single ‘grand coalition’ to fight the militants behind the Paris attacks but Vladimir Putin’s air force has mostly hit Western-backed rebels combating Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
By the end of the evening, Hollande appeared more relaxed and French officials were touting a potentially significant advance in cooperation with Moscow.
“It’s major because of the agreement not to strike groups that are fighting Islamic State,” a French official said. “What matters is coordination – the fact that we have a common objective to fight IS. It’s the result that matters, destroying Daesh (the Arabic acronym for Islamic State).”
After a week of talks with the leaders of the United States, Russia, Britain and Germany, Hollande has secured increased political and military support for his air campaign against IS, which claimed responsibility for attacks by gunmen and suicide bombers that killed 130 in France’s worst atrocity for decades.
But his goal of turning the two rival international military alliances waging a proxy war in Syria into a single broad coalition focused on defeating IS seems a long way off.
That is chiefly because the US-led coalition including Sunni Arab states Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as Turkey aims to assist rebels in overthrowing Assad, while the Russian-led team including Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia is allied with his armed forces.
It is also because US President Barack Obama is determined to avoid being sucked back into a war in the Middle East, or working militarily with Russia after its annexation of Crimea and support for Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine.
A Western diplomat said the Russians gave Hollande their standard line that “we are not wedded to Assad”, but in practice they show no signs of relinquishing him or grooming a successor.
RUSSIAN ACTION UNCERTAIN
In military terms, Hollande has secured greater intelligence sharing by Washington which is already helping France hit more IS targets, as well as promises of refuelling and reconnaissance support from Germany and the prospect of Britain joining in air strikes, provided parliament approves.
Cyprus and Britain offered to open their east Mediterranean air bases to the French to facilitate air strikes in Syria, while Berlin and other European partners have agreed to send more peacekeepers to Mali to free up French forces there.
Politically, the president, whose firm response to the Paris attacks has given a small bounce to his record low popularity ratings, won a global wave of sympathy for France.
His voice cracked with emotion at a White House news conference when Obama prefaced his remarks by saying in French: “Nous sommes tous francais” (We are all French).
What Hollande achieved in Moscow remains to be seen.
Putin agreed to share intelligence on IS activities and to coordinate air strikes to avoid dangerous incidents.
He also asked Paris to provide a map of forces on the ground fighting IS so it could avoid bombing them, according to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
That request highlighted the ambiguity of Moscow’s support.
First it requires an improbable degree of mutual trust to expect Paris to hand over detailed coordinates of Western-backed forces in Syria. Second, it implies that any rebel force not directly fighting IS is fair game for Russian bombers.
As part of talks in Vienna on a peace settlement to the 4-1/2 year civil war, Russia and the West have been trying to define who is considered a ‘terrorist’ in Syria, diplomats say. There is no agreement so far.
Privately, the Russians concede that more than half their strikes so far have been aimed at non-IS anti-Assad rebels, a Western diplomat in Moscow said.
A Reuters analysis of targets disclosed by the Russian Defence Ministry up to mid-October showed 80 percent were in areas where there were no IS positions.
Since then, the ministry has stopped releasing such frequent or detailed data on targets. The data available shows Russia carried out mutliple strikes before Nov 2 on Turkish-backed Turkmen rebels just inside northern Syria – a long way from Damascus but close to where a Russian warplane was dramatically shot down by Turkish fighters this week.
But Moscow has been keen to trumpet its recent strikes against IS since Russia confirmed that a bomb had brought down a Russian civilian airliner full of tourists over Egypt’s Sinai province last month.
US MILITARY SUPPORT COUNTS
French officials acknowledged before Hollande’s tour that the goal of a ‘grand coalition’ against IS was more of a political objective than a practical military proposition.
“We are more inclined to work with Putin at the moment than Obama is,” a senior Paris official said. “We came to the conclusion that we had to work with the Russians and we need to get them on board.”
But French defence officials acknowledge that US military support is much more important than Russian assistance.
“It’s better if they (Russia) stop bombing groups fighting Daesh, and objectively that would be a major positive change on the ground,” one defence aide said. “But the key and structure of any operation against Daesh lies with the United States.”