President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday ordered Russia’s armed forces to co-ordinate with the French military as “allies” on a joint action plan in Syria, signalling a growing rapprochement after the terror attacks on Paris and downing of a Russian airliner.
Mr Putin’s order, coupled with planned visits by French President François Hollande to Moscow and Washington next week, suggested a significant shift in strategy over Syria in the face of the shared threat from Islamist terrorism.
It also signalled that Mr Putin’s calls since September for a “grand coalition” to fight Isis might be moving closer to reality — along with his hopes of easing Moscow’s isolation from the west since its military intervention in Ukraine last year.
“A French naval battle group led by an aircraft carrier will arrive in your theatre of action soon. You must establish direct contact with the French and work with them as with allies,” Mr Putin told the commander of the missile cruiser Moskva, deployed off Syria, speaking from Russia’s space-age National Defence Control Centre.
Russia also said it would step up its Syrian bombing campaign with additional long-range aircraft, bombers and fighters operating from Russian territory.
The moves came just hours after Russia’s FSB intelligence service acknowledged that the Russian Airbus that crashed in Egypt on October 31 had been brought down by a bomb.
They also came after Mr Hollande a day earlier echoed Mr Putin’s calls for an anti-terror “coalition” in an address to parliament members.
“There must be a union of all those who truly want to fight against this terrorist army as part of one big coalition,” Mr Hollande said. “It’s with this goal in mind that I will meet in the coming days President [Barack] Obama and President Putin to join forces and achieve a result that has been postponed for too long.”
The terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday appeared to be changing attitudes, with the west prepared to put to one side for now its differences with Moscow over Ukraine.
At the weekend’s G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, Mr Putin was not shunned as last year, but held bilateral meetings not just with German chancellor Angela Merkel but with Mr Obama and UK premier David Cameron.
Moscow’s acknowledgment that the Russian Metrojet crash in Sinai killing all 224 aboard was the result of a “homemade explosive device” was a cue for Mr Putin to announce his determination to bring “retribution” to the culprits — echoing Mr Hollande’s language on protecting citizens at home.
Observers in Russia believe Moscow considered stepping up its campaign in Syria once it was certain the Metrojet crash had been a terror attack — probably when Mr Putin ordered the suspension of all flights to Egypt 10 days ago — but then seized upon the shift in sentiment in Europe triggered by the Paris attacks.
“The Russians were looking for signs that the western countries, starting with France, are becoming more amenable to co-operating with Russia, and . . . to letting [Syrian president Bashar al-] Assad stay around at least for a while,” said Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, an arm of the US think-tank.
Before the assaults that killed 129 on Friday in the French capital, Paris had started air strikes in Syria targeting camps suspected of sheltering individuals plotting attacks against France. But it refused to join the coalition led by the US and the Gulf States because it was not backed by the UN.
Paris, like the US, has also criticised Russia’s bombing in Syria for targeting the moderate opposition to Mr Assad, not Isis, and differed with Moscow over its insistence on Mr Assad’s departure as part of any political transition.
But the French strategy has come under pressure following the terrorist attacks.
“The Russians are part of the problem, and therefore part of the solution in the region,” said Alain Coldefy, a former admiral and now a researcher at Iris, a Paris think-tank. “It could mean giving Assad more time to leave power, I am sure good diplomatic wording can be found.”
Closer collaboration with the Russians could make air strikes more effective and rekindle relationships with the Syrian intelligence services, with whom France severed ties when it shut its embassy in 2012. France has struggled to find reliable information on French Jihadis joining the ranks of Isis, intelligence officials say.
Piotr Dutkiewicz, a Russia expert at Canada’s Carleton University who has followed the diplomacy around Syria closely, suggested Russia, France, and the US could agree “within days” on a “division of labour”. But this was likely to fall short of Moscow’s hopes for a grand coalition.
“I think they will leave Syria to Russia, with some support from France and the US, particularly in the type of weapons that Russia does not possess,” he said. “But they will stop Russia short of going further to Iraq. This will be a geographical division of labour.”
The Pentagon said on Tuesday that Russian officials did communicate with the US before their aircraft launched a series of air strikes around Raqqa, the Syrian city controlled by Isis that has been a focus of US military activity in recent weeks. This was the first time that the two militaries had used the new communications channel designed to prevent accidents in Syria.
However US officials insisted that there were no plans for any broader co-operation with Russia in Syria. Although the US has now stepped up its intelligence-sharing arrangements with France, the US also said it was not worried about the implications of the French working more closely with Russia.
“We don’t have concerns about the French in terms of their own interactions with the Russians — that this will in any way affect coalition operations,” said Peter Cook, Pentagon press secretary.
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