President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday ordered the Russian navy in the Mediterranean to establish contact with its French counterparts and work together "as allies" in a campaign against the Islamic State group in Syria.
The move, which is welcome by French President Francois Hollande, is another setback for President Barack Obama who is under fire for calling the Paris attacks 'a setback' even as his own counterterrorism chiefs suggest other such attacks are in the ISIS 'pipeline.'
"It's necessary to establish direct contact with the French and work with them as allies," Putin told the military top brass at a meeting after French President Francois Hollande said the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle would be deployed to the eastern Mediterranean.
Russia had stepped up air strikes against Islamist militants in Syria with long-range bombers and cruise missiles after the Kremlin announced a manhunt for those responsible for blowing up a Russian airliner over Egypt.The Russian president for the first time blamed a bomb for bringing down a Metrojet flight to St. Petersburg from Egypt on Oct. 31, killing 224 people, and said officials would now focus on "finding and punishing the perpetrators."
His comments were broadcast as Kerry met Hollande, who is urging a U.S.-Russian alliance to destroy Islamic State, which he blames for assaults that killed 129 in Paris last week.
"We need to step up our efforts to hit them at the core when they’re planning these things,” Kerry told reporters at the Elysee Palace. He later held out the prospect that a Syrian cease-fire could come within weeks, permitting a stepped-up campaign against Islamic State, the Associated Press reported.
The diplomacy, including Putin’s huddle with President Barack Obama on Sunday at a global summit, suggest narrowing international differences on how to end the four-year Syrian conflict.
Both Russia and western countries are conducting independent bombing campaigns against militant groups in the ravaged nation. Russia’s main focus has been protecting the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad rather than stopping the advance of Islamic State, which has declared a "caliphate" in parts of Syria and Iraq.
Islamic State and affiliated groups have escalated their violence in recent weeks. At least 44 people were killed in a Nov. 12 suicide bombing in a Beirut suburb for which the organization claimed responsibility, its first attack in the Lebanese capital. A militant group in the Sinai region that supports Islamic State also said it was responsible for downing the Metrojet flight.
Rapprochement with Russia is becoming a central strand of the global response to Islamic State’s growing ability to cause mayhem. In a rare speech to both houses of parliament on Monday, Hollande suggested the U.S. and Russia need to end their dispute sparked by Putin’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and make common cause against the group.
Agence France-Presse, citing a U.S. official, said Russian planes bombed Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa in recent hours. French jets bombed Islamic State targets there for a second day, destroying a command center and a training site.
Putin is reaching out to the West as Russia’s economy stagnates under sanctions imposed because of the Ukraine crisis. After the 90-minute meeting with Obama, he announced Monday he’s willing to help restructure Ukrainian debt, settling a dispute that has dogged Ukraine’s efforts to rebuild its fragile finances.
Still, any alliance between NATO powers and Russia faces major obstacles. In his speech, Hollande said Assad "can’t be part of the solution" in Syria, a position similar to that of the U.S. Russia, by contrast, views Assad as a key Middle Eastern ally and has provided him with weapons throughout the Syrian conflict.
Coordination with Russia will be hampered by "Moscow’s unchanged long-term goal of sustaining" the Assad government, Carsten Nickel, an analyst at political-risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence, said in an email. Moreover, the risk remains of flare-ups in Ukraine that could "help to re-ignite the conflict as soon as Moscow and the West seem to re-align their interests on Syria," Nickel said.
Tension in Paris
As France began its second workday after Friday night shootings and suicide bombings in seven locations -- including five in the city center -- the atmosphere remains tense. The main entrance of the Opera metro hub was closed and surrounded by armed soldiers at the height of the morning rush hour because of a suspicious package. Though police soon gave the all-clear, it was the latest in a series of false alarms in the capital that have put citizens on edge and prompted companies to cancel events.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Hollande will meet next week with both Putin in Moscow and Obama in Washington to discuss next moves. While French officials have said they’re certain Islamic State directed the Paris attacks, "we don’t yet have the whole reality" of what occurred, Valls said, including the total number of individuals involved. A manhunt is continuing for at least one suspect, Belgian-born Abdeslam Salah, 26.
Police in France conducted 128 raids overnight, continuing a crackdown on suspected extremists throughout the country that began on Sunday. In Belgium, home to the suspected planner of the attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, authorities raised the national terror-alert level and canceled a Belgium-Spain soccer match, citing security concerns.
And officers in the German town of Alsdorf arrested two women and a man suspected of being connected with the terror attacks in Paris. Special forces apprehended the trio at about 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, police spokesman Werner Schneider said.
Meanwhile, Obama, who has been visiting Turkey, was testy in a news conference Monday as reporters suggested Republicans were attacking his ISIS strategy. He declined to address the issue, saying "I'm too busy for that."
“We are going to continue to pursue the strategy that has the best chance of working, even though it does not offer the satisfaction, I guess, of a neat headline or an immediate resolution,” Obama said during the press conference at a summit of leading rich and developing nations in Antalya, Turkey.
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