PARIS — French President François Hollande will meet with President Obama in Washington next week and then travel to Moscow to seek a “grand coalition” to battle the Islamic State, his government said Tuesday.
The announcement of Hollande’s trips came during a visit by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who arrived in Paris late Monday to directly convey U.S. condolences and solidarity in the wake of Friday’s terrorist attacks by the Islamic State.
It also followed a vow by Russian President Vladimir Putin to intensify his country’s airstrikes against the perpetrators of what Moscow now says was a terrorist act in the downing of a Russian commercial airliner in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula late last month.
Putin said late Monday that he had instructed Russia’s Defense Ministry “to turn to all our partners” to help those efforts.
The Islamic State has asserted responsibility for the Oct. 31 plane disaster but has offered no evidence to back up its claim.
Taken together, the leaders appeared to be heading toward new coordination in what are now separate air campaigns in Syria. France is part of the U.S.-led coalition targeting Islamic State sites, but Russia has been primarily bombing U.S.-backed opposition forces fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
As if to buttress Putin’s remarks, Russian jets conducted a series of attacks targeting Raqqa, the de facto Islamic State capital in Syria, where U.S. and French warplanes have also been active.
But Kerry, speaking after meeting with Hollande, seemed to throw cold water on the prospect of an immediate increase in cooperation with Russia to target the militants.
He said such teamwork would have to wait for progress on negotiations over a diplomatic solution to Syria’s civil war, in which Russia backs Assad and the United States and its allies say Assad must eventually step down.
The Obama administration has rejected Russian requests to share Islamic State-targeting intelligence. The administration has agreed only to open lines of communication to “deconflict” the two countries’ air missions to ensure that one country’s planes do not encounter the other’s in flight.
“Obviously, if we’re in the same theater operating, it is essential that we . . . not conflict in a way that could be risky for an incident or any of our aircraft,” Kerry told reporters.
It would be “much more effective if we are exchanging information and working together to attack Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, which also is known as ISIS and ISIL.
But “we’re not there yet,” Kerry said. “We have said that when the political track shows a measure of reality in terms of a transitional process, we’re prepared to get into a discussion of coordination” with Russia.
Kerry expressed strong optimism that the political track is moving quickly, saying that “we are weeks away, conceivably, from the possibility of a big transition for Syria,” including a cease-fire between Assad and opposition forces that would allow all parties to shift their attention to the Islamic State.
On Saturday in Vienna, representatives of Russia and Iran — Assad’s principal backers — attended a meeting of U.S. allies to discuss a plan for Syrian political negotiations. On the opposition side, such efforts have been stymied for years over disagreements among the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other coalition members about which rebel groups should participate in a transitional government.
Saudi Arabia has agreed to hold a meeting next month of all opposition groups, including Islamists it backs and more-moderate groups that the United States has been helping. The Islamic State, and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which is also fighting Assad, are banned as terrorists.
The hope is that a unified Syrian opposition will emerge from the meeting, held under United Nations auspices, with a team able to sit with representatives of Assad’s government to negotiate a mutually acceptable transition government and eventual elections.
“I have confidence that the Saudis . . . are fully seized with the importance of moving rapidly with the opposition,” Kerry said. The standard for participation, U.S. and U.N. officials have said, is whether an opposition group is willing to join a cease-fire.
A fully unified opposition is likely to include Islamist groups, separately backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others — such as Ahrar al-Sham, one of the largest anti-Assad fighting forces — that the United States until now has refused to accept.
Once negotiations are underway, the Vienna participants agreed, they will stop their support of proxies in the region and push them toward a cease-fire, ideally by January, allowing the parties to unite in attacks on the Islamic State.
“All of the proxies were in Vienna,” Kerry said. “The next weeks are going to be very critical with respect to what can be achieved.”
Obama, speaking Monday at the Group of 20 summit in Turkey, was somewhat less optimistic, describing “modest progress” on the diplomatic front.
“These are obviously ambitious goals,” Obama said. “Hopes for diplomacy in Syria have been dashed before. There are any number of ways that this latest diplomatic push could falter. And there are still disagreements between the parties, including, most critically, over the fate of Bashar Assad,” who Russia and Iran insist not be forced out of office.
But after four years of failed diplomatic efforts, “what is different this time, and what gives us some degree of hope,” Obama said, “is that for the first time, all the major countries on all sides of the Syrian conflict agree on a process that is needed to end this war.”