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Russia shifts position on Syria to forge French alliance

Alain Jocard, AFP | Francois Hollande (L) escorts Vladimir Putin out of the Elysée palace, on October 2, 2015, in Paris, at the end of a summit to consolidate a fragile peace in Ukraine

Russian warships are to cooperate with the French aircraft carrier Charles-de-Gaulle in the Mediterranean Sea, a decision that demonstrates a clear rapprochement between Paris and Moscow, who until now have been at odds over the Syrian conflict.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his Mediterranean warships on Tuesday to make “direct contact” with the French aircraft carrier Charles-de-Gaulle, which left the port of Toulon, southern France, on Wednesday.

During a meeting devoted to military operations in Syria, President Putin told the head of the Russian Army that it was “imperative” to work with the French navy “as allies”.

According to the Kremlin, the simultaneous raids and the contact between French and Russian warships signal that France and Russia are now entering a “closer collaboration” in the wake of Friday’s Paris attacks.

The French Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, announced Tuesday that Russia had “shifted” its position regarding Syria by bombing known Islamic State (IS) group locations. “Just today Russian cruise missiles have hit Raqqa,” the IS stronghold in eastern Syria, declared the French television network TF1.

The Russian air strikes follow the launch of ten French fighter jets on Sunday which made targeted attacks on Raqqa.

François Hollande, who gave a hawkish speech against IS group jihadists on Monday, is scheduled to meet with Putin on Thursday, November 26, when they will further discuss operations in Syria.

'France doing the reverse of what it did in the past'

The principles of the rapprochement between the two world powers might seem surprising given the recent tensions between Paris and Moscow.

“We have followed a certain path since the Crimean conflict and the sale of Mistral missiles,” said Jean-Vincent Brisset, Brigadier General of the French air force and Research Director at the International Relations and Strategy Institute (IRIS).

“There is a lack of consistency in French politics. We don’t know where it might go. France is now doing the reverse of what it did in the past.”

In August 2014 France refused to sell Mistral warships to Russia because of a disagreement between the two countries over the Ukrainian conflict, cancelling a 1.2-billion-euro order. More recently, in October, some Western countries including the US, the UK, Germany, France, Turkey, and certain Arab allies in the Gulf region accused Russia of targeting Syrian opposition groups during its bombardments as a means to protect Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But after the terrorist attacks carried out in the French capital last Friday the deadliest in the country since the Second World War France has changed its position.

During his speech last Monday to a joint parliamentary session in Versailles, Hollande declared “Daesh” (another Arabic name for the IS group) a sworn enemy of France. Without support from Russia, which has carried out intense bombardments in Syria since the end of September, IS group has proven to be a difficult enemy to fight.

Lip service

Hollande has called for a “large and singular coalition” among “all who can really help fight the terrorist army.” In a speech made before the UN at the end of September, Putin made a similar proposal for a “true international collation against terrorism.”

However, there could be limits to how effectively the newly formed Franco-Russian alliance may play out, cautions Brisset.

“In terms of information and supplying, this collaboration could certainly be put into effect, even if political objectives differ. But to go any further than that would be politically difficult and technically complicated,” he said.

For Brisset the Franco-Russian rapprochement constitutes mere lip service.

“France hopes that the US and Russia, the true players in the game, will one day reach an agreement. But if Paris rides solo with Moscow, Washington could in turn close a couple of pipelines, namely in terms of supplies and information,” he said.

Before his visit to Moscow, Hollande will meet US President Barack Obama in Washington on Tuesday November 24 after already hosting US Secretary of State John Kerry at the Elysée Palace last Tuesday.

(This article was adapted from the original in French)

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