PARIS: Vladimir Putin entered talks Friday around Syria’s fate after an intervention that ensured Russia’s role as a major player no matter what the outcome.
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.
Russia fighter jets have kept up a sustained rhythm of airstrikes since Wednesday. They carried out 18 sorties in the past 24 hours, including 10 overnight in which seven sites were bombed, the Defense Ministry said Friday.
Putin meets French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday at a tense time. All the leaders, like President Barack Obama, are concerned about Islamic extremists who have seized territory and power in the chaos of Syria’s civil war — and now threaten attacks abroad.
But Russia and the West don’t appear to be bombing Syria for all the same reasons.
France, firmly opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad, also started airstrikes this week targeting Islamic State 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 Islamic State militants. 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 Assad, Moscow’s main ally in the Middle East.
Lavrov insisted Russia was targeting the same militant groups as the U.S.-led coalition, which is conducting its own airstrikes in Syria: the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, the al-Qaida-linked Jabbat al-Nusra and other groups.
The Russian Defense Ministry statement Friday said the latest wave of airstrikes targeted only the Islamic State and destroyed a command post near Daret Azzeh in the Aleppo region and hit a field camp near Maaret al-Numan in the Idlib region, wiping out bunkers and weapons stores.
The ministry released cockpit video of the bombing of the Kassert-Faradz command post and of two attacks in Maaret al-Numan.
Russian jets appeared to be primarily bombing central and northwestern Syria, strategic regions that are the gateway to Assad’s strongholds in the capital of Damascus and the coast. However given rapidly shifting battlefield terrain in Syria’s chaotic civil war, it can be difficult to distinguish which groups holds what territory.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that air raids Thursday near the Islamic State group’s de facto capital of Raqqa killed 12 extremists including a Tunisian and an Iraqi. The Observatory said it was not clear if the nine air raids were carried out by Russian warplanes or those of the U.S.-led coalition.
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.
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.