Russia, France Agree to Tighten Cooperation Against Islamic State

MOSCOW (AP) -
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (R) and his French counterpart Francois Hollande (L) attend a news conference after a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Thursday. (REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool)
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (R) and his French counterpart Francois Hollande (L) attend a news conference after a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Thursday. (REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool)

The presidents of France and Russia agreed Thursday to tighten cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State, although they remained at odds over their approach toward Syrian President Bashar Assad.

IS has claimed responsibility for deadly attacks against both countries’ citizens in recent weeks: Nov. 13 shootings and suicide bombings in Paris which killed 130 people, and the Oct. 31 bombing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula that claimed 224 lives.

French President Francois Hollande has been on a diplomatic drive since the Paris attacks to increase cooperation in tackling IS, which holds swathes of territory in both Syria and Iraq. He has met this week with President Barak Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi before flying to Moscow on Thursday for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Hollande and Putin agreed on increasing intelligence sharing, intensifying their airstrikes against IS in Syria and cooperating on selecting targets — two days after Turkey downed a Russian warplane near the Syrian border.

“We agreed on a very important issue: To strike the terrorists only, Daesh and the jihadi groups only, and not to strike the forces and the groups that are fighting against the terrorists,” Hollande said after the meeting, referring to IS by its Arabic acronym. “And we are going to exchange some information about that: what can be struck, and what must not be struck.”

But the two countries remain at odds in their approach toward Assad, with Hollande saying the Syrian head of state “does not have his place in Syria’s future,” and Putin stressing that “the Syrian president’s fate should be entirely in the hands of the Syrian people.”

Putin described Assad’s army as a “natural ally” in the fight against IS – an essential force capable of battling the extremist group on the ground. He added that Russia was ready to cooperate with other groups ready to fight IS.

Russia has been Assad’s staunchest ally, and has come under criticism for targeting some rebel groups who are fighting against both IS and Assad in Syria’s multifaceted and complex civil war.

Obama, after meeting with Hollande, had said Russian cooperation in the fight against IS would be “enormously helpful.” The United States has also insisted that a political transition in Syria must lead to Assad’s departure.

In Germany, Merkel’s cabinet decided to send reconnaissance aircraft, tanker planes and a warship to help in the fight against IS. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said the government had also agreed to provide satellite surveillance.

During Merkel’s visit to Paris on Wednesday, Hollande had said it would “be a very good signal in the fight against terrorism” if Germany could do more against IS in Syria and Iraq.

Von der Leyen said the warship would help protect France’s aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean and the tanker planes could help refuel French warplanes in the air.

The satellite surveillance could provide important information on IS and also help protect civilians with precise information.

Germany currently provides weapons and training for Kurds fighting against IS in Iraq.

The decision still needs parliamentary approval, but it was expected that it would not meet much resistance by lawmakers.