François Hollande in bid to form ‘grand coalition’ against IS

Vladimir Putin greets president’s initiative with sarcasm and claims alliance was his idea


Even as Paris steps up its military intervention in Syria, French president François Hollande has launched a diplomatic offensive aimed at uniting international efforts in the war against Islamic State (IS).

Since the IS attacks that killed 129 people in Paris, Hollande has been dreaming of uniting two international coalitions that are working at cross purposes in Syria.

The Moscow-Tehran-Damascus axis seeks to keep Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in power. Moscow and Tehran are the only foreign parties to the conflict who have shown a willingness to commit ground troops.

The other coalition, led by the US and including France, says Assad’s departure should be a prerequisite for military cooperation with Moscow and Tehran. Washington fears the Russians and Iranians might otherwise misuse intelligence on US-backed opposition groups.

There are also fissures within the US-led coalition. Turkey gives priority to preventing the emergence of a Kurdish state, while Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arabs – the main financiers of the rebellion – rabidly oppose Assad but are ambiguous on IS.

Conflicting interests

Hollande has stepped into this tangle of conflicting interests. He began efforts to build a “grand coalition” at a meeting with US secretary of state John Kerry yesterday. Kerry expressed their shared determination to “fight and defeat together the psychopathic monsters” of IS.

But Kerry told journalists travelling with him there could be no military co-operation until there was a ceasefire and political transition. It would be impossible to defeat IS unless Assad left. “He’s complicit in the rise of Daesh [the Arabic acronym for IS], and therefore, as long as Assad is there, you cannot fully get rid of this [IS] phenomenon.”

Hollande also talked to Iranian president Hassan Rohani by telephone to “show the importance” of negotiations among great powers regarding the war on IS.

France nearly bridged the gap with Russia on Monday, when Hollande said IS, not Assad, was France’s enemy in Syria. Russian intelligence has just confirmed that the crash of a Russian aircraft which killed 224 people on October 31st was the work of IS.

Until now, 80 per cent of Russian air strikes were directed at opposition other than IS, but Vladimir Putin has said he will intensify attacks on IS because of the Sinai assault.

“The murder of our own in the Sinai is the bloodiest of crimes,” he said. “We must act without delay and learn the names of those responsible. We will seek them out wherever they hide. We will find them and punish them.”

Putin welcomed Hollande’s initiative with a sarcastic remark. “We heard our French friends saying all the time that President Assad’s departure was a precondition for political changes . . . But did that protect Paris against a terrorist attack? No.”

Putin also claimed paternity for the idea of a grand coalition. “I talked about it at the UN session marking its 70th anniversary . . . The tragic events that followed [in Paris] showed we were right,” he said.

As Hollande’s diplomatic initiative got under way, Paris and Moscow ratcheted up military operations against IS. Ten French Rafale and Mirage 2000 aircraft bombed Raqqa, IS’s centre of operations, for the second night in a row, dropping 16 bombs on a command centre and a training camp. At the same time, Russia fired cruise missiles at Raqqa.

Russian forces in Syria are based on the coast. The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle has been redirected from the Persian Gulf to the eastern Mediterranean, where the French will co-ordinate with the Russian navy.

Hollande will travel to Washington on November 24th, and Moscow on November 26th, to discuss the “grand coalition” with Obama and Putin respectively. But French diplomacy “has little margin for manoeuvre”, warned Bernard Badie, an expert on international relations at the Sciences Po educational institute. “Things get played out between the Russians and Americans, and we try to get involved.”

Hollande enjoyed more immediate success after invoking article 42.7 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, on the “aid and assistance” owed to member states who are “the victim of armed aggression”.

Vote of support

French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called a unanimous vote of support by EU defence ministers yesterday “a political act of great importance” which would “enable us, in the coming hours, to hold the necessary bilateral meetings”. Le Drian’s entourage said other EU states might contribute weapons or aircraft to France’s war effort.

France also received financial relief from Brussels. “The pact of security is more important than the [EU’s] stability pact,” Hollande said in his speech at a special congress of both houses of parliament on Monday, referring to France’s commitment to bring deficit spending under 3 per cent by 2017.

Paris has received repeated postponements from the European Commission. The budget limits “will have to be exceeded”, French prime minister Manuel Valls said yesterday. As a result of the IS attacks, Hollande has promised to recruit 8,500 personnel for the ministries of the interior and justice. Pierre Moscovici, commissioner for economic affairs, said the commission “understands the priority for security”.

The COP21 UN climate conference was to have been a diplomatic triumph for France. It would take place, Valls said, because cancelling it “would be giving up in the face of terrorism”.

But he added: “Everything outside the COP, a whole series of concerts and festive events, will probably be cancelled.”

However, uncertainty surrounds the grand march between Place de la République and Place de la Nation, scheduled for November 29th, the eve of the conference. France will remain under a state of emergency until mid-February, and public gatherings are banned.

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