Will downing of Russia warplane thwart France’s efforts for broader anti-IS coalition?

By Laura Rozen

As French President François Hollande arrived in Washington to meet with President Barack Obama in the wake of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane near the Syrian border Nov. 24 further complicated his efforts to nudge its chief Western ally into closer cooperation with Moscow to combat the Islamic State and advance a Syrian peace plan. Even in advance of Hollande’s visit, the Obama administration had found itself in the somewhat dismaying position of having to defend the 65-nation, US-led global coalition targeting IS in the face of an allied member’s apparent request for a grand coalition that might include Russia.

“The fact is, taking a look at all of the resources that has gone into this is to understand that there is a comprehensive strategy that is being implemented by the United States and the 64 other members of our coalition,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest had said Nov. 23. “And I think that is a testament to the priority that the President places on this issue. It's also a testament to the American leadership that's at work here.”

The United States is “pulling more than our weight” in the anti-IS coalition, Earnest also said. “And we believe that there is more that can be done if countries are willing to contribute additional resources.”

Turkey said it had shot down the Russian Sukhoi SU-24 warplane only after numerous warnings not to violate Turkish airspace. “The aircraft entered Turkish airspace over the town of Yaylidag, in the southeastern Hatay province,” the Turkish government said in a statement. “The plane was warned 10 times in the space of 5 minutes before it was taken down.”

The two Russian pilots reportedly ejected from the burning plane with their parachutes. Syrian rebel groups on the ground offered conflicting reports about the circumstances under which one or both pilots were said to have died.

A visibly angry Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Sochi, lashed out at Turkey, calling the downing of the plane a “stab in our back delivered by accomplices of the terrorists.” Putin also said he found it suspicious that Turkey had called for an emergency meeting of NATO after the incident, as if a Turkish plane had been downed instead of one of Russia’s. NATO was due to hold an emergency meeting at 11 a.m. EST Nov. 24.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense claimed the downed Sukhoi had not entered Turkish territory. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, scheduled to travel to Turkey Nov. 25, canceled his trip and urged Russians not to travel to Turkey for the time-being, according to reports citing the Foreign Ministry.

In advance of Hollande’s arrival in Washington, US officials had briefed journalists and met with coalition ambassadors on plans to intensify efforts to combat IS on the ground in Syria and Iraq and to boost joint efforts to combat IS militants globally.

“I think we have an opportunity now in the wake of Paris to really galvanize the entire coalition and intensify our pressure across the board,” Brett McGurk, US special envoy to the coalition combating IS, had said at a State Department press briefing Nov. 20. “We’re going to suffocate the core, which is in Iraq and Syria, and we’re going to suffocate the global networks.”

McGurk said an estimated 30,000 foreign fighters from 100 countries had joined jihadi militants in Iraq and Syria, a daunting figure that he said was roughly double the number of mujahedin who traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s. Reducing the territory IS holds is critical to removing the mystique of IS's proclaimed caliphate that attracts foreign fighters to the IS cause, he said.

“What’s driving a lot of these young men and women to join this fight … is this phony notion of the caliphate that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced in the summer of 2014,” said McGurk. “And his core driving philosophy … is this expanding state that they claim to be trying to create, this war of flags of constant expansion. So one of our core focus areas, therefore, in suffocating the core is shrinking that area. And that is happening.”

US and French officials have also said that advancing a diplomatic process to try to end the Syrian civil war is another critical component of the effort to combat IS. Some 20 nations meeting in Vienna in October and November issued a communique calling for Syrian regime and opposition parties to hold talks under UN auspices by January 1, for a new Syrian constitution to be written in 6 months and new Syrian presidential elections to be held within 18 months. Concurrent with the political track, the Vienna communique calls for working toward a cease-fire.

“[The] conflict will not wind down unless we have a credible process for a political transition,” McGurk said. “So there is some convergence of views … as we’re focused on ISIL and suffocating the networks, we are focused very intensively on the diplomatic track because many of these things are linked.”

A diplomatic source briefed on the Vienna consultations, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor, “The dynamic is very complicated.” Among the complications, he said, is that of the 20 countries and international entities comprising the International Syrian Support Group, three of them, including Iran and Russia, believe Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should remain in power, and 17 believe he should leave.

The countries also have diverging views about which groups operating in Syria, beyond IS and the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, should be considered eligible to represent the opposition at future talks or should alternately be designated terror organizations. The Putin consultations with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Sochi were supposed to discuss the latter issue.

The source briefed on recent consultations said that one idea circulating in Washington is if a group agrees to accept the future peace plan, it can come to the talks, but if it rejects the plan, it will be put on the bad list. “Many groups are in the gray position,” the source said.

The International Syrian Support Group — comprised of the 20 countries and entities that have met twice on Syria in Vienna in recent weeks — is next due to meet in Paris in December, on the sidelines of climate talks. Meantime, Saudi Arabia is expected to host a meeting of Syrian opposition groups in mid-December to try to unify them and draft a list of common principles.

France’s Hollande, after meeting Obama in Washington, is due to travel to Germany to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel Nov. 25 and then to Russia to meet Putin Nov. 26. It remains to be seen whether Hollande will be able to convince Putin to hit IS more than other rebel targets in Syria and to show more flexibility in the diplomatic process in regard to Assad's fate.

“The view of French authorities now is that no defeat of Daesh [IS] is possible without a political solution in Syria,” French diplomat Olivier Decottignies told a conference at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Nov. 23. “The French view is that Bashar al-Assad cannot be the outcome of that political process … That is why engaging Russia is important.”

“One question is whether the Russians can deliver the Iranians [on Syria] or not,” Decottignies said. “Putin will have interesting things to say,” following his visit to Iran Nov. 22, his first in eight years.

Testing whether there are openings to nudge the parties closer together even modestly over time could bolster international efforts against IS, said the French diplomat Simond de Galbert. “The extent of Russia’s willingness to support French and U.S. objectives in Syria is unclear,” Galbert, currently on detail to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in the Wall Street Journal Nov. 23. “But strategic uncertainty should not prevent France from testing the potential for tactical cooperation against ISIS as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of a political transition in Syria.”

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