THE presidents of Russia and France, which both started bombing Syria this week, held talks yesterday about their military operations as they tried to overcome differences on whether Syrian president Bashar al-Assad should stay in power.
Russian president Vladimir Putin and French president François Hollande met in Paris after a week of frenzied international activity around Syria that broke into yesterday’s meeting, which was supposed to have only been about Ukraine.
Russian fighter jets have kept up a sustained bombing campaign since Wednesday, including ten new air strikes on Thursday night. While Russia says it is targeting extremists, Western officials suspect Moscow of using the air campaign as a pretext to go after anti-Assad rebels.
Mr Putin entered yesterday’s meeting after an intervention that ensured Russia’s role as a major player in Syria’s fate. In the space of a few days, Russian airstrikes and Mr Putin’s diplomatic manoeuvring at the UN first raised hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough – then brought fears of a new proxy war with the West.
A senior French diplomat said Mr Putin and Mr Hollande tried to bridge the differences over an eventual political transition in Syria, and also talked about the airstrikes by Russia and the US-led coalition, and protecting civilians. Mr Assad’s future is a major sticking point: he’s Russia’s main ally in the Middle East, while France is firmly opposed to his rule.
The two countries are not officially “co-ordinating” their air strikes but inform each other to avoid problems, the official said.
Russia’s air strikes have prompted discussions in the Pentagon about whether the US should use military force to protect US-trained and equipped Syrian rebels if they come under fire by the Russians.
The Pentagon had its first conversation on Thursday with Russian officials in an effort to avoid any unintended US-Russian confrontations.
The first Russian air strikes on an Islamic State-held area hit a town near its de facto capital of Raqqa in northern Syria on Thursday, according to images from the Russian defence ministry and Syrian activists.
Activists say IS did not hold Friday prayers in several mosques in Raqqa, fearing new Russian air strikes. The Russian defence ministry yesterday said the latest air strikes targeted only IS and destroyed a command post and a field camp.