France is America’s oldest ally. It has also gained a reputation as America’s most difficult ally.
Yet after French President François Hollande and U.S. President Barack Obama emerged from their White House meeting Tuesday, they made it clear that France has now become America’s essential European partner when it comes to destroying ISIS and charting a diplomatic road map for resolving the Syrian civil war.
Hollande has actually been the only European ally reported to have joined Obama in attacking ISIS in Syria. Looking ahead, the two leaders pledged to step up and broaden their airstrikes, go after ISIS’ leaders, cut off the group’s funding and supply lines, and back those forces that are fighting ISIS on the ground, such as Kurdish forces and the Iraqi government.
Clearly, Hollande has stiffened Obama’s resolve to destroy ISIS, not just contain it, with the two leaders agreeing that destroying ISIS is more urgent than ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Still, although they suggested Assad could be part of a transition, they were clear that he could not be part of a solution.
The two leaders also agreed to ratchet up the pressure on other allies to join the fight against ISIS by deploying strike aircraft and special operations forces, sharing intelligence, supporting local fighters, and beefing up U.S.-EU cooperation to prevent the flow of foreign terrorist fighters. France has invoked an EU solidarity clause committing EU member states to assist it in responding to ISIS’ November 13 attacks in Paris, which left 130 dead and hundreds more wounded. Obama pushed the EU to share information on airline passengers and when people cross EU borders.
More countries are likely to join the French-American lead.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, after meeting with Hollande in Paris on Monday, offered access to a British air base in Cyprus for French strike aircraft, pledged to turn around years of falling British defense spending, and announced that he would ask Parliament to reverse the limitations it imposed in 2013 on British military engagement in Syria. The Netherlands, meanwhile, is considering expansion of its air attacks against ISIS in Iraq to targets in Syria.
Germany, for its part, faces parliamentary and constitutional constraints on striking ISIS militarily but is poised to boost its training support for the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq and will send forces to Mali to support a U.N. peacekeeping mission and to relieve pressure on France, which had been carrying much of the burden of anti-terrorist efforts there. Italy’s attention is on Libya, where ISIS has gained control over wide swaths of territory. Paris and Washington are both expected to press Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan to step up their participation in the campaign against ISIS in Syria.
But Franco-American efforts to build what Hollande has termed a “grand and unique coalition” against ISIS suffered a setback Tuesday when Turkey downed a Russian Su-24 fighter jet near the Turkish-Syrian border — the first time a NATO member has shot down a Russian plane since 1952.
Hollande, who is scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, had hoped he could win Russian agreement to forge a new alliance to defeat ISIS. But this latest incident has only widened the gap between Franco-American and Russian goals in Syria.
Putin labeled the incident “a stab in the back” and pledged “serious consequences” against Turkey. He remains committed to the Assad regime and continues to bomb Western-backed Syrian rebels, not just ISIS.
Given these differences and hair-trigger tensions, Hollande’s more urgent agenda in Moscow now is to find ways to keep Russian and allied forces from running into each other, and to press Putin to stop bombing Syrian rebels and to accelerate diplomatic efforts to wind down the Syrian civil war.
None of this will be easy. But France’s president is a man on a mission — and he is making some progress, one capital at a time.