President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande made clear on Tuesday they are playing the long game against the Islamic State even in the wake of the deadly Paris attacks, even inviting help from two unlikely countries.
The two leaders appeared more aligned on how to move forward against the violent extremist group than experts and lawmakers had predicted in the days leading up to their Oval Office meeting. Hollande quashed any notion of French ground troops heading to Syria, and Obama left the door open to working with Russia.
The tenor of the high-profile diplomatic session was transformed earlier Tuesday when a Turkish F-16 fighter jet shot down a Russian Su-24 attack aircraft near the Turkey-Syria border.
Obama Calls On Russia to Shift Syria Strategy
Obama told reporters his "top priority" will be to ensure the incident does not escalate into a clash between the two heavily armed countries.
Though experts and U.S. lawmakers had warned in recent days that Hollande might be more willing to coordinate with Russia, the U.S. commander in chief left the door open to including Moscow in counter-ISIS operations — but with a substantial caveat: That Russia's mission is solely to go after ISIS and not propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
“There is a potential convergence" of interests among the U.S.-France coalition and Russian President Vladimir Putin because Islamic groups also are targeting Russia,” Obama said.
In a rare scene, Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who was seated in the front row taking notes, took questions from reporters following the session.
"I think Putin is coming to the realization that Assad should transition out," Biden said, citing information gleaned by Secretary of State John Kerry and other officials. "I think everyone is moving off their absolute positions."
Still, videos of the flaming Russian attack plane barreling toward the ground hung over the press conference.
U.S. military officials said Turkey warned the Russian jet 15 times prior to the shoot-down. And a Turkish defense ministry statement pinned blame on Russia, saying its warplanes routinely cross into its airspace.
Putin, speaking before a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan in Sochi, Russia, warned the incident will have “serious consequences for Russian-Turkish relations.” The Russian president called the shoot-down a “stab in the back,” calling Turkish officials “accomplices of terrorists.”
Hollande, who has been on a goodwill tour this week with allies seeking help against ISIS, will meet Thursday with Putin in Moscow after conferring with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Paris on Wednesday. He intends to discuss the downed military jet, but indicated most of the conversation will focus on the ISIS fight.
Hollande said he will tell Putin that "France can work with Russia" against ISIS. But such a partnership will form only if Russia "concentrates" its military action in Syria on ISIS, while also working with other leaders on a political transition in Syria that does not include its current president, Bashar al-Assad.
With all eyes on Obama’s stance toward working with Russia, he agreed with his French counterpart that Russia could "do more" against ISIS. But he said Russia must cease operations he said are intended to keep Assad in power, and even extended an olive branch to Iran to do the same.
Jeffrey Lightfoot, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, called the idea of U.S.-French-Russian collaboration on ISIS “a good thing in general."
“But I don’t see something ahead like a grand coalition,” Lightfoot said. “The Russians are talking about something akin to an anti-Hitler coalition, but I just don’t see that happening.”
At the start of the joint news conference, Obama said the U.S. and France "stand united" against the Islamic State, and continued the muscular rhetoric from the end of his Asian trip last week in saying the group "must be destroyed." He said the United States and France "must do it together.”
The U.S. president cast the Nov. 13 attacks on several sites in Paris in sweeping terms, saying the coordinated strikes that left 130 dead were “not just an attack on one of the world's great cities, it was an attack on the entire world."
But as the two leaders spoke, it became clear they have no intention of mobilizing a major military operation in Syria and Iraq to deliver a fatal blow to the violent group.
"France will not intervene militarily," Hollande said, adding Syrian opposition and Iraqi forces will continue to fight ISIS on the ground. French warplanes will support those forces, he added.
Though some experts had predicted the French president would ask Obama to significantly ramp up America’s military operations against the group, Hollande — at least publicly — appeared in lockstep with the U.S. president’s strategy.
Standing at a podium in the White House’s East Room featuring the U.S. presidential seal, Hollande essentially repeated Obama’s description of the approach he has taken against the group. He said France and the U.S. would step up efforts to eliminate ISIS's “means” to finance, plan, train for and carry out future attacks like the ones in the French capital on Nov. 13.
Specifically, that will mean the two countries, along with others in what the White House often dubs a “65-nation coalition” will target ISIS command centers, oil transport trucks to stifle its income, training centers, and other targets.
Obama again said Washington will increase the pace of its counter-ISIS activities, but continued to give no indication he is considering a larger U.S. military footprint in the region. He said the United States and France "must do even more together,” but focused exclusively on functions like sharing more intelligence information.
Notably, there was talk of shuttering Syria’s 500-mile border with Turkey, over which ISIS recruits head into Syria and refugees fleeing the years-long civil war there head out — usually toward Europe. But neither Obama nor Hollande described just how the coalition and local forces would do that.
They called on European leaders to do more, especially on sharing information about individual traversing what long have been the continent’s open borders.
The leaders addressed reporters in front of a large portrait of President George Washington after talking privately in the Oval Office.
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