Hollande opens diplomatic push in anti-IS fight in Syria

AP News
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Posted: Nov 23, 2015 4:01 PM
Hollande opens diplomatic push in anti-IS fight in Syria

PARIS (AP) — French President Francois Hollande is launching an intense diplomatic offensive this week in hopes of coordinating efforts by France, the U.S. and Russia in the military fight against the Islamic State group in Syria in response to the Paris attacks that killed 130 people and jolted the West.

Hollande will have no easy task trying to coordinate the strategies of Washington and Moscow. Last week, Hollande called for both countries to set aside their policy divisions over Syria and "fight this terrorist army in a broad, single coalition." But his office acknowledges that "coordination" sounds like a far more realistic goal.

"We are not talking about a command center. We are talking about coordination of methods and exchange of intelligence," a French diplomat said Monday on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to publicly discuss the subject.

Hollande is heading to Washington on Tuesday and Moscow on Thursday with a single ambition: "to strike Daesh altogether," the diplomat said, using the Arab acronym for IS.

The Nov. 13 attacks in Paris on a popular concert hall, restaurants and near the national stadium revealed the new reach of the Islamic State group, able to strike in the heart of Europe.

France joined the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group in Iraq last year and expanded its campaign to Syria in September. After the attacks, France sent its aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle with its 26 jet fighters to the Mediterranean to help combat IS militants in Syria.

In Washington, Hollande is expected to push to make military cooperation more effective and improve intelligence sharing. Hollande and Obama will also be discussing the Syrian peace process known as the Vienna process.

Both the U.S. and France are calling for a transition that would lead to the departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad, considered by Paris as the key to a political solution. Russia is so far opposed.

"A political solution means to be able to create a unity government in Syria and clearly say that Assad cannot be the future of the country he has helped to butcher," Hollande said on Monday.

In Moscow, France's effort will focus on three main strategic axes: to prevent Assad from targeting civilians, to target the IS group — not the moderate Syrian opposition — and to make progress in the process that would lead to Assad's departure.

Russia has conducted an air campaign in Syria since Sept. 30. France is hoping Putin will consider "re-evaluating" his country's position and work with France and the U.S. after Moscow said it had confirmed that a bomb brought down a Russian plane over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people on board.

Hollande is also to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday and Italian Premier Matteo Renzi on Thursday in Paris, following his Monday meetings with British Prime Minister David Cameron and European Council President Donald Tusk. A flurry of bilateral meetings can be expected starting Nov. 30 when 140 world leaders begin arriving in Paris for a critical U.N. climate conference.

In parallel, France's military command has opened discussions with European countries in search of military support and intelligence, the French diplomat said.

Analysts say France mostly needs bilateral assistance from NATO heavyweights like the U.S., Britain and Germany.

In a statement on Nov. 16, NATO's North Atlantic Council of ambassadors from the 28 member countries, which directs the alliance's day-to-day affairs, indicated that such practical help had begun.

"We are all more than ever determined to counter and defeat the threat of terrorism and extremism. A number of allies are already working with France on their ongoing operations and investigations in the wake of the attacks," the council said in a statement without elaborating.

Hollande got a boost on Monday from Cameron who said he will seek parliamentary approval this week for Britain to join airstrikes against Islamic State extremists in Syria, and offered the use of a British air base in Cyprus for anti-IS actions in Syria.

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John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this story.