Russia, France begin cooperating on Islamic State as Kerry ups ante


Moscow/Istanbul (dpa) – Major foreign powers involved in the Syrian conflict on Tuesday sidestepped long-standing differences to ratchet up pressure on the Islamic State extremist group with coordinated military action.

The moves by France, Russia, the US and Turkey come in the aftermath of Friday’s attacks in Paris and the apparent terrorist bombing of a Russian airliner over Egypt last month.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, a key backer of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, ordered his forces to cooperate with France – which backs the Syrian opposition – “as allies” against Islamic State.

US Secretary of State John Kerry meanwhile announced that his country would start a joint operation with Ankara to seal off a 98-kilometre strip of the Turkish border adjoining Islamic State-held territory in neighbouring Syria.

Putin’s move came hours after Russia confirmed that a bomb attack – claimed by Islamic State – had been responsible for the October 31 crash of a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, in which all 224 passengers and crew were killed.

“In the near future, a French naval force headed by an aircraft carrier will approach the region,” Putin told military chiefs. “You need to establish direct contact with the French and work with them as allies.”

“You will need to develop with them a mutual action plan in the sea and in the air,” he added, in comments reported by state media.

Both Russia and France meanwhile stepped up airstrikes against the jihadists in Syria.

The French Defence Ministry said its forces carried out their second round of airstrikes since the Paris attacks, which killed at least 129 people and were also claimed by Islamic State.

Ten planes took off from bases in Jordan and the Persian Gulf and dropped a total of 16 bombs on an Islamic State command centre and a training ground, the ministry said in a statement.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the raids had hit areas near the north-eastern city of al-Raqqa, Islamic State’s de facto Syrian capital.

In a Monday speech to parliament, President Francois Hollande said his country intended to “destroy” the terrorist organization.

Hollande said French strike capacity would “triple” as of Thursday, when the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier will be moved to the eastern Mediterranean.

Russia has doubled the number of its airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria, including intense bombing of al-Raqqa, state media reported citing Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Russia and France have previously been at odds over the Syria conflict. Russia has stepped up its assistance to al-Assad’s forces, providing air cover for a recent government offensive.

France has criticized the Russian support for al-Assad, saying the Syrian leader must leave office to permit a political transition.

The Kremlin said that Hollande would meet Putin in Moscow on November 26, marking a significant detente in bilateral relations that have been scarred by Russia’s occupation and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula last year.

The French presidency said Hollande would travel to Washington before his talks with Putin, for a meeting with US President Barack Obama on November 24.

Meanwhile, Kerry said the US would be starting a joint operation with Ankara to seal off Islamic State’s links to the Turkish border, which has been used by the jihadists as a gateway for militants, weapons and oil.

Speaking to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, the top US diplomat said that a “major effort” against the Islamic State extremist group is in motion.

In a reference to gains this year by US-backed Kurdish forces, Kerry said that 75 per cent of the northern Syrian border had already been shut off.

“And we are entering an operation with the Turks to shut off the other remaining 98 kilometres,” Kerry said.

“We are engaged in thickening our presence in Incirlik, more people flying more missions,” Kerry adds, referring to a key airbase in southern Turkey, used by a US-led coalition to fly sorties in territory held by the jihadists.

Cooperation between the US and Turkey against Islamic State has been hampered by Turkish suspicions of the Syrian Kurdish forces backed by Washington, which are close to banned Turkish Kurdish rebels.

Turkey wants the zone currently controlled by the Islamic State in northern Syria to be handed over to rebel groups, including hardline Islamist factions, to create a buffer zone, another sticking point in working with the US.

When asked if terrorist attacks such as the ones in Paris on Friday were the new normal, Kerry said: “Absolutely not, no. This is not normal, it will not be normal and will not become normal. This is an aberration.”