For France, an Alliance Against ISIS May Be Easier Said Than Done

Posted on Posted in World News

PARIS — By attacking civilian targets well beyond its territory, the Islamic State has seemingly accomplished what diplomats had failed to do. Suddenly, the international order has been scrambled, drawing the United States, Russia and France together in a possible alliance against the terrorist group.

Each of the three longtime powers now has its own reasons for wanting to destroy the Islamic State after the pitiless attacks on civilians in Paris and the downing of a Russian passenger jet carrying vacationers. President Obama has provided intelligence to facilitate French airstrikes and suggested he was open to more cooperation with Russia.

But so far, that alliance remains largely theoretical. Even as President François Hollande of France takes on the role of bridge builder with back-to-back trips next week to Washington and Moscow, powerful centrifugal forces are still pulling the would-be partners apart as competing national interests challenge efforts to translate that newly shared aspiration into a sustained collaboration over time.

Mr. Obama and President Vladimir V. Putin harbor fundamental disagreements over a host of issues that have not been dissolved by the Paris attacks. Dividing them are the Russian annexation of Crimea and its meddling in eastern Ukraine, Moscow’s efforts to demonize Washington and undermine confidence in NATO’s commitment to collective defense, and the Kremlin’s support of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

“It’s certainly a good thing for us and a good thing for France if we have a more coordinated approach toward these airstrikes in Syria,” said Karen Donfried, a former White House adviser to Mr. Obama who is now the president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “But how committed Russia really is about taking on the Islamic State, I don’t think any of us really knows. I remain really skeptical that our interests converge here.”

Strobe Talbott, the president of the Brookings Institution and a former deputy secretary of state, said any real alliance would require a seismic change in the Russians’ approach toward Syria, where they say they are trying to fight terrorism but appear more bent on preserving Mr. Assad.

“Maybe it’s getting through to them,” Mr. Talbott said. “They keep talking about being part of a solution. But they talk the talk of being part of the solution and they walk the walk of being part of the problem.”

Just how complicated assembling such a coalition would be was underscored Wednesday when French diplomats at the United Nations began discussions with colleagues on the Security Council on a draft measure authorizing force against the Islamic State. The French ambassador, François Delattre, described it as “short, strong and focused on the fight against our common enemy.”

But just as France prepared to share its measure with council diplomats, Russia floated a proposal of its own, resurrecting a draft resolution that went nowhere earlier this fall because it insisted on cooperating with the government of countries affected by terrorism — in Syria’s case, with Mr. Assad. Vitaly I. Churkin, the Russian ambassador, said failing to work with the government “is definitely weakening the possibility of a joint fight against terrorists.”

Aides said privately that Mr. Obama was skeptical, but in meetings in Turkey, the Philippines, Austria and Paris over the last few days, he and his secretary of state, John Kerry, have held their reservations and broached the possibility of Russia and the United States working together to defeat the Islamic State.

After meeting with Mr. Putin last weekend in Turkey, Mr. Obama said in Manila on Wednesday that Russia had been “a constructive partner” in talks in Vienna seeking a road map for a cease-fire in the Syrian civil war that has given rise to the Islamic State. But for further cooperation, he said, Mr. Putin must direct less at the Syrian rebels supported by the United States and more at the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

“The problem has been in their initial military incursion into Syria, they have been more focused on propping up President Assad,” Mr. Obama said. If Mr. Putin “shifts his focus and the focus of his military to what is the principal threat, which is ISIL, then that is what we want to see.”

Mr. Hollande, under enormous pressure at home after the attacks, is trying to take the diplomatic initiative. Sensing a chance for rapprochement, he plans to travel to Washington on Tuesday to meet with Mr. Obama, and then to Moscow to meet with Mr. Putin. Mr. Hollande said on Wednesday that he wants to forge “a large coalition” to act “decisively” against the Islamic State.

In pursuing such a coalition, Mr. Hollande was careful not to ask the NATO alliance to come to France’s defense under Article 5, which obligates members to aid one another in case of attack. That article has been invoked only once, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Given Mr. Obama’s adamant resistance to putting large numbers of American ground forces in Syria or Iraq, a French diplomat said on Wednesday that Paris was unwilling to embarrass Mr. Obama by “asking for the impossible.”

Instead, to broaden France’s diplomatic support, Mr. Hollande invoked an unusual article in the Lisbon Treaty governing the European Union. Article 42.7 states that if a member is subject to “armed aggression on its territory” other members have an “obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power” consistent with their obligations to NATO.

Asked on Twitter why France invoked the European Union treaty and not the NATO charter, Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to Washington, wrote that one reason was “the dialogue with Russia.” The implication was that Russia is hostile toward NATO and therefore invoking the alliance’s aid might be provocative toward Moscow.

The European Union countries voted unanimously to support France, but the treaty does not commit them to military action and intelligence sharing is already well developed. No other European country has been willing to confront Islamic radicalism as the French have, at home and in Mali, Iraq and Syria.

Even Britain, still bruised from its participation in the Iraq invasion of 2003, has not been willing to strike inside Syria. Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to seek approval from Parliament before action in Syria and to proceed only if he has “a clear majority.” The election of Jeremy Corbyn, the new hard-left Labour Party leader, has not made that easier.

The United States, Europe and Russia have had moments since the Cold War when their interests converged. Walter Slocombe, a former under secretary of defense, recalled that the American and Russian militaries worked together in Bosnia and Kosovo. In Bosnia, he said, “it worked out O.K., but that was a different Russia and an almost totally benign environment.”

The Obama administration is suspicious that beyond bolstering Mr. Assad, Russia’s real goal in Syria is taking attention off Ukraine — in effect, trading the status quo for collaboration in the Middle East. “Are we willing to give up on Ukraine?” asked Ivo H. Daalder, Mr. Obama’s former ambassador to NATO and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “I’m worried that we fall in this trap.”

Beyond the United States, Russia and Europe, there are other players in Syria, particularly Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Mr. Kerry has worked to forge a consensus among them. But as Mr. Daalder said, “except for France and the United States, at this point no one thinks going after ISIS is the first priority.”

Without that, he said, “I don’t see this as a new coalition.”