French warplanes flying for the first time from an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean struck Islamic State targets in Iraq on Monday as President François Hollande launched a diplomatic blitz designed to boost international cooperation and intensify efforts against the militants.
Hollande, who met in Paris with British Prime Minister David Cameron, will spend Tuesday in Washington with President Obama before meeting later in the week with the leaders of Germany, Italy and Russia.
In addition to providing a visible display of solidarity during the visit, White House officials said that Obama will reaffirm and further expand intelligence cooperation with France that was augmented after the Nov. 13 Islamic State attacks in Paris.
Above all, a senior administration official said, Obama hopes to discuss how to “take advantage of what is clearly a new sense of momentum and urgency coming on the heels” of a series of recent militant attacks, not only in Paris, but in “Mali, Beirut, Ankara and elsewhere,” including last month’s bombing of a Russian commercial airliner.
“We are hoping that more countries that have been in the game in Iraq are going to get deeper in the game in Syria,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration planning.”
Hollande’s planned trip to Moscow on Thursday to meet with President Vladimir Putin has increased speculation that Russia, which began its own airstrikes in Syria’s increasingly crowded skies early this fall, sees itself as taking a global leadership position in the counterterrorism fight.
While the French have called for more cooperation with Russia, the administration official said that “we don’t really see any daylight between the French position and ours.” Expanded French airstrikes over the past 10 days have been closely coordinated with the U.S. military, which has provided France with targets in Syria and Iraq, and with refuelling services for French warplanes flying from bases in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
At least four U.S. military officials are aboard the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, which moved into the eastern Mediterranean over the weekend. The French Defense Ministry said warplanes from the carrier hit Iraqi targets in Ramadi and Mosul.
After meeting with Hollande, Cameron said that he would seek parliamentary support this week for expanding British airstrikes into Syria and offered France the use of a British airbase in Cyprus, near the Syrian coast. British warplanes and unmanned aircraft have been bombing in Iraq for more than a year.
Cameron also called for improved control of Europe’s borders, through which at least two of the alleged perpetrators of the Paris attacks slipped among refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict, and for improved sharing of security information among members of the European Union.
“We must, without any further delay, finally agree [on] rules that will enable us to share [airline] passenger records,” Cameron said Monday in France. “It is frankly ridiculous we can get more information from countries outside the E.U. than we can from each other.”
Obama, who returned early Monday from a nine-day overseas trip, has called on all 65 members of the international coalition against the Islamic State to intensify their participation, including an expansion of airstrikes against the militants in Syria and Iraq.
Only a handful of those nations are actually participating in what have been more than 8,000 airstrikes over the past 14 months. The United States has flown the vast majority of them, particularly in Syria, where regional allies and France have conducted only about 160 of nearly 3,000 strikes.
Russia warplanes began flying over Syria in late September. But while Moscow said it would hit the Islamic State, which occupies much of north-central and eastern Syria, most of its strikes have targeted coalition-backed opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Russia and Iran.
The Obama administration has said it would welcome cooperation with Russia, but only if it stops aiding Assad and helps bring a cease-fire to Syria’s civil war.
Hollande hopes to push Putin in that direction, while increasing French air attacks and urging Obama to intensify the U.S. effort.
France and other coalition members flying airstrikes in Syria and Iraq are dependent on the United States for every mission they fly. Although there are some “dynamic strikes” by aircraft hovering over target zones looking for opportunities to hit the militants, most coalition missions are scheduled 72 hours in advance at the American air operations center in Qatar.
Representatives of all those flying in the coalition “sit around every day looking at targets” to hit “three days from now,” said Army Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the Baghdad-based headquarters of what the U.S. military calls Operation Inherent Resolve. The targets include Islamic State oil smuggling operations, command centers and other installations that intelligence and unmanned overflights have identified.
Once the targets are chosen, they are “divvied up” based on available aircraft and those planes suitable for the mission, Warren said. Recent strikes on militant oil tankers, for example, required “aircraft that can fly low and slow, and have machine guns,” he said. “Right now, only we have it.” A training camp in the desert can be hit by a wide variety of aircraft.
When France launched airstrikes against Raqqa, the de facto Islamic State capital in Syria, the day after the Paris attacks, the targets came from an existing list of sites.
The attacks in Paris and overall threats in Europe have added urgency to an effort by Secretary of State John F. Kerry to move Syria’s separate civil war from the battlefield to the negotiating table. “If we can get a cease-fire, if we can get a political process,” Kerry told reporters Monday in Abu Dhabi, “that greatly facilitates what we can then talk to Russians and others about, in terms of coordination to go after Daesh.”
Kerry is in the region to follow up on talks in Vienna 10 days ago at which U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East agreed, with Russia and Iran, to expedite plans to bring representatives of Assad’s government and the Syrian opposition to the table to negotiate a transition government.
One of the major problems in moving toward such talks over the past four years has been differences among a wide range of opposition groups — and among the coalition members backing them. In Vienna, Saudi Arabia agreed to host a Dec. 15 meeting of all groups, excluding the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, to agree on a negotiating team to represent them.
Kerry has said that a cease-fire, monitored by the United Nations, can begin as soon as the negotiations start, perhaps as early as January.
“What we need to do is not succumb to fear. People need to not panic,” he said of rising tensions in Europe and the United States in the wake of the Paris attacks. He spoke in an interview from Abu Dhabi with NBC’s “Today” show.
In Washington, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson repeated assurances that “at present, we know of no credible and specific intelligence indicating a Paris-like attack on the U.S. homeland.”
While Johnson said he understood “anxiety across our country,” he listed administration efforts underway to “secure the homeland” and called on Congress to “provide effective help.” He said the administration was continuing to evaluate its screening process for Syrian refugees.
Johnson said Congress can assist in toughening an existing waiver program that allows European passport holders to enter this country without visas. Many European nationals are among the thousands of so-called “foreign fighters” who have joined the Islamic State.
Carol Morello in Abu Dhabi, Missy Ryan in Paris, Griff Witte in London and Thomas Gibbons-Neff in Washington contributed to this report.