In the space of a few days, Russian airstrikes in Syria and Putin’s diplomatic maneuvering at the U.N. first raised hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough — then brought fears of a new proxy war with the West. And they have suddenly overshadowed a Paris summit Friday meant to focus on the conflict in Ukraine.
Putin meets French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday at a tense time: both Russia and France started bombing Syria this week.
France, firmly opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad, is targeting ISIS extremists as part of a U.S.-led coalition. Russia says it’s targeting extremists too, but Western officials say Russia is using the air campaign as a pretext to go after anti-Assad rebels that include CIA-backed groups.
Allies in the U.S.-led coalition have called on Russia to immediately cease attacks on the Syrian opposition and to focus on fighting ISIS extremists. A joint statement by France, Turkey, the United States, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Britain expressed concern that Russia’s actions will “only fuel more extremism and radicalization.” The statement was released Friday by the Turkish Foreign Ministry and confirmed by the French Foreign Ministry.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday rejected suggestions that the airstrikes were meant to shore up support for Assad, Moscow’s main ally in the Middle East.
He insisted Russia was targeting the same militant groups as the U.S.-led coalition, which is conducting its own airstrikes in Syria: the ISIS, also known as ISIL, the al-Qaida-linked Jabbat al-Nusra and other groups.
Friday’s talks in Paris aren’t officially about Syria though it’s on everyone’s minds. A top French diplomat said France doesn’t want to engage in formal diplomatic discussions about Syria unless Russia agrees to target only extremists and agrees that eventually Assad must go.
Whatever they end up talking about, Putin comes to Friday’s meetings with the upper hand militarily. It’s a tactic he’s used in the past: Before major peace talks on Ukraine’s conflict in 2014 and earlier this year, Russia sent troops to bolster struggling separatists, weakening the Ukrainian government’s negotiating power.
Russian lawmaker Alexei Pushkov, head of the foreign affairs committee of the lower house of Parliament, told France’s Europe-1 radio Friday that the Russian airstrikes will intensify.
“There is always a risk of getting bogged down, but in Moscow they’re talking about three to four months of operations,” he said.
Tensions are escalating with the U.S., and Russia’s airstrikes have prompted discussions in the Pentagon about whether the U.S. should use military force to protect U.S.-trained and equipped Syrian rebels if they come under fire by the Russians.
The Pentagon on Thursday had its first conversation with Russian officials in an effort to avoid any unintended U.S.-Russian confrontations as the airstrikes continue in the skies over Syria.
Germany has stayed out of the military action in Syria and pushed for a political solution.
Ahead of the Paris talks, Merkel stressed the importance of tackling the reasons hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing to Europe this year, and “that goes for Syria in particular.”
“We have all known for years that there can only be a solution there with Russia, and not against Russia,” Merkel said Thursday.
Merkel, Putin and Hollande meet later Friday to discuss a political solution to Ukraine’s conflict, after a long-awaited weapons withdrawal agreement this week and some other signs of progress.