Syrian troops could be used to help fight Isis, France's foreign minister says
Mark Tran and agencies
Troops loyal to Bashar al-Assad could be used to fight Islamic State, but only in the framework of a political transition without the Syrian president, France’s foreign minister has said. The remarks by Laurent Fabius underscore the deep faultline between the west and Russia as François Hollande, the French president, seeks to forge a common front against Isis after the atrocities in Paris that killed 130 people.
“Troops on the ground cannot be ours, but [there can be] Syrian soldiers from the Free Syrian Army, Sunni Arab states, and why not regime troops,” Fabius told RTL radio without specifying whether he meant immediately or in the long term.
Clarifying Fabius’s comments, an official said the minister was reiterating France’s longstanding position that there could be no cooperation with Syrian government forces to battle Isis until a unity government was in place. “It could only happen in the framework of a political transition and Fabius stresses that this transition is urgent and indispensable,” the official said.
On Thursday, France and Russia agreed to exchange intelligence on Isis and other rebel groups to improve the effectiveness of their bombing campaigns in Syria, after talks between Hollande and Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
However, the French and Russian leaders remained at odds over the fate of Assad. Russia continues to back the Syrian leader, but the west and Sunni Arab countries blame him for the nearly five-year civil war and want him removed.
“What we agreed, and this is important, is to strike only terrorists and Daesh and to not strike forces that are fighting terrorism,” Hollande said at a joint news conference with Putin on Thursday. “We will exchange information about whom to hit and whom not to hit.”
He said France would increase its support to rebel groups battling Isis on the ground in Syria.
Putin said Moscow was ready to unite with Paris against a “mutual enemy”, but he reaffirmed Moscow’s longstanding view that Assad and the Syrian government were also allies in the fight against terrorism. Isis claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian plane over the Sinai peninsula in Egypt on 31 October, which killed all 224 people on board.
“I believe that the fate of the president of Syria must stay in the hands of the Syrian people,” Putin said. Hollande said Assad “does not have his place in Syria’s future”.
Putin and Hollande stressed the need to increase airstrikes against vehicles transporting oil across Isis-controlled territory to hit a key source of financing for the militant group.
Putin also used the news conference to repeat his accusations against Turkey of turning a blind eye to oil smuggling by Isis. He said it was “theoretically possible” that Ankara was unaware of oil supplies entering its territory from Isis-controlled areas of Syria, but added that this was hard to imagine.
Relations between Russia and Turkey, a Nato member, have deteriorated sharply since Turkish forces downed a Russian warplane on Tuesday, and Moscow has warned of “serious consequences” for economic ties.
Putin said that under the cooperation already established with the US-led coalition, Russia’s military had passed on details of the flight plan of the downed jet. “Why did we pass this information to the Americans? Either they were not controlling what their allies were doing, or they are leaking this information all over the place,” Putin said.
On Wednesday Russia’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, alleged that Turkish officials were benefiting from Isis oil sales. The foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said it was no secret that “terrorists” used Turkish territory.
On Thursday the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, rejected the accusations. “Shame on you. It’s clear where Turkey buys its oil and gas,” he said. “Those who claim we are buying oil from [Isis] like this must prove their claims. Nobody can slander this country.
“If you are seeking the source of weaponry and financial power of [Isis], the first place to look is the Assad regime and countries that act with it.”
Hollande said the downing of the Russian jet highlighted the need for countries to coordinate their military activities more closely to avoid a possible repeat of what he called a “regrettable incident“. He again called for a “de-escalation” of the tensions between Moscow and Ankara.
On Friday France will mourn the victims of the Paris attacks, with Hollande leading a solemn ceremony in the capital.