MOSCOW – French President Francois Hollande is traveling to Moscow on Thursday, part of his weeklong push for a stronger coalition against Islamic State militants in Syria that should unite France, the United States and Russia in the aftermath of the Paris attacks that killed 130 people and jolted the West.
Hollande’s visit, which is expected later on Thursday, comes two days after he met with President Barack Obama in Washington where both leaders vowed to escalate airstrikes against the IS and bolster intelligence sharing.
Hollande’s difficult task became even more arduous after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border earlier this week. The incident underscored the complex military landscape in Syria, where a sprawling cast of countries and rebel groups are engaged on the battlefield and in the skies overhead, sometimes with minimal coordination.
The French president comes to Moscow with intent to make progress on three priority issues: to prevent Syrian President Bashar Assad from targeting civilians, to focus the airstrikes on IS militants - not the moderate Syrian opposition - and to make progress toward a process of political transition in Syria.
France will also seek to “avoid an escalation” between Russia and Turkey, according to a French diplomatic official who spoke anonymously because of the sensitiveness of the issue.
In advance of Hollande's meeting with Putin, France sought to dismiss concerns that it might soften its stance on international sanctions against Russia over Ukraine in exchange for Russia's cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State. France's ambassador to the U.S., Gerard Araud, tweeted Tuesday evening that "Hollande has confirmed the sanctions will be maintained as long as the Minsk agreements are not implemented."
Following his meeting with the French president, Obama said Russian cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State would be "enormously helpful." Both Obama and Hollande insisted that a political transition in Syria must lead to Syrian President Assad’s departure.
Last week, Hollande called for both countries to set aside their policy divisions over Syria and "fight this terrorist army in a broad, single coalition." But his office acknowledges that "coordination" sounds like a far more realistic goal.