France's call to work with Putin falls flat

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French President Francois Hollande is pushing for the United States and Russia to unify against terrorism in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris, but his message appears to be falling flat. 

The gulf between Russia and the U.S. has widened dramatically in President Obama’s second term, with the countries clashing repeatedly over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the legitimacy of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria.

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Hollande has said those differences should be set aside following the carnage inflicted upon Paris by terrorists apparently connected to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In a joint session of the French Parliament, Hollande said he would ask Obama and Putin to "unify our strength and achieve a result that has been too long in coming." 

The French president plans to reiterate that message when he visits the White House on Tuesday, but he is facing deep skepticism in Washington. 

The problem is that United States and Russia are at loggerheads over Syria, the country that has serves as the training ground and home base of ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

“The one issue that would prevent further cooperation is not getting to an agreement at some point on the future of Assad,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said this week. 

“If [Russia is] really committed to being full partners [against] ISIS, they have to understand that Assad is a big part of the motivation around ISIS in the first place.”

The Kremlin has faced its own difficulties with ISIS, with intelligence officials suggesting the terrorist group was likely responsible for the downing of a Russian passenger plane in Egypt late last month.

But the Obama administration is wary of forming a major anti-ISIS coalition that includes Russia, arguing the country has consistently taken actions in Syria that are intended to prop up Assad.

Speaking to reporters Thursday in the Philippines, Obama said Russia and Iran must choose whether to save Assad or “save the Syrian state” by finding a government “that truly can be legitimate.”

“That is what is going to allow us to refocus our energies on ISIL as a unified world,” Obama said, using an alternate acronym for ISIS. 

“The strategy that they're pursuing right now doesn't allow them to focus attention there. That's why most of the Russian strikes at this point have not been directed at ISIL; they've been directed at propping up the Assad regime. So they will have to make a fundamental shift, I believe, in policy.”

White House officials stressed that France agrees with Obama that Assad’s continued grip on power has destabilized Syria and allowed ISIS to flourish.

“I think our objectives are exactly one and the same with President Hollande’s,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Thursday.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been deeply critical of Obama’s foreign policy, opposes the US forming a partnership with Russia against ISIS. He thinks cooperating with Putin is “unworkable and immoral,” an aide said.

“I have great respect for President Hollande, but I firmly disagree with an alliance with the Russians,” McCain said in a televised interview this week. “The Russians are supporting Bashar Assad, who has barrel bombed and slaughtered a quarter million of his own people.”

The threat ISIS poses does not mean the United States should ignore Putin’s misdeeds, added McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“Does this ignore the dismemberment of Ukraine?” he said. “Does this ignore the pressures that are being put on the Baltic countries? Does this ignore all of the policies and actions on the part of Vladimir Putin that are in direct contradiction to everything that we stand for and believe in?”

Democrats, too, remain wary of Putin’s motives. The ranking Democrats on both the House and Senate Armed Services committees said Putin must prove he’s serious about taking on ISIS.

“The Russians have great deal of work to do to demonstrate through their actions that they are prepared to play a constructive role in combating ISIL,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said in a written statement to The Hill.  “There appears to be a possible diplomatic opening for progress, and a lot will depend on what happens at the Vienna talks regarding Assad's departure.  Again, the Russians have to match words with deeds.”

Reed was referring to diplomatic talks in Vienna on Syria’s future. The United States, Russia and 17 other countries agreed to a transition plan in Syria, but not what role Assad would play in that transition.

Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, echoed his Senate counterpart in saying Putin needs to demonstrate his commitment to fighting ISIS.

“Partnering with Russia in Syria is something we should consider if, and only if, the Russians show that they are interested in truly taking on ISIL, and not using the terrorist attacks in Paris and the Russian airliner bombing as an excuse to attack the moderate opposition in the region,” Smith said in a written statement to The Hill. 

“If Russia is willing to help manage and negotiate a political transition that moves aside Assad, then the international community would have an opportunity to consider cooperation with Russia.”

— Jordan Fabian contributed to this report.