The Obama administration is using the current moment of extreme anger and anxiety in Europe to press allies for sharp increases in their contributions to the fight against the Islamic State. Suggestions include more strike aircraft, more intelligence-sharing, more training and equipment for local fighters, and deployment of their own special operations forces.
The message has already fallen on willing ears, at least in the case of France, whose president
met with President Obama on Tuesday to plan strategy in the wake of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris.
“There is a new mind-set now,” French President François Hollande said during a White House news conference.
They agreed, Obama said, that “our nations must do even more together.”
While the two leaders spoke in generalities, a senior administration official said that both Obama and Hollande would be “working the phones” with other members of the U.S.-led coalition — and with potential new members — to insist that now is the time for “those who could bring more assets to the table” to do so.
While new contributions would be added to anti-Islamic State campaigns across the board, the attention is clearly on Syria, marking a shift in what began as an “Iraq first” focus when Obama authorized airstrikes in the region last fall. Of more than 8,000 coalition strikes since then, about two-thirds have been in Iraq.
“It’s a work in progress,” the administration official said of the new focus. “It’s not like we’ve got the list of X countries, all of which have signed up and said, ‘We’re ready to go.’ But I do think you will see more countries in the fight in Syria and more aircraft in the air in coming weeks.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration planning and diplomatic conversations.
While European allies, primarily France and Britain, signed up early to join the air campaign in Iraq, they had declined to participate in strikes inside Syria — a country with whose government they, and the United States, still have diplomatic relations, however strained.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, after meeting with Hollande in Paris on Monday, said he would ask Parliament this week to approve the entry of British warplanes into the fight in Syria.
At the same time, Middle Eastern allies including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, all of whom originally joined the campaign in Syria, have gradually drifted away. Part of the administration’s plan is to bring them back to conduct Syria operations.
Amid sharp domestic criticism, particularly from Republican presidential hopefuls, that Obama is not doing enough to combat the growing threat from the militants, the administration has escalated its air operations in Syria in recent weeks. Obama has authorized the deployment of 50 U.S. Special Operations troops to help organize and coordinate aid to Syrian Arabs and Kurds fighting the militants in the north-central and eastern part of the country.
Now, “we would like there to be more of that from other countries,” the administration official said. “That would make it easier for us to work with partners on the ground . . . to have battlefield awareness, to call in airstrikes and ID targets. It would be easier to provide direct military assistance . . . and guidance to fighters.”
Obama and Hollande also used their joint news conference to address U.S.-French friendship and mutual support in emotional terms, with Hollande noting that Obama was the first leader to call him after the Paris attacks.
Obama also took advantage of the opportunity, his first public statement to the American people since his return early Monday from a nine-day trip abroad, to pledge tight scrutiny of Syrian refugees, whom he said the United States has a responsibility to admit to this country.
“Our humanitarian duty to help desperate refugees and our duty to security, those duties go hand in hand,” he said. “My fellow Americans, let’s remember we faced greater threats to our way of life before. Fascism, communism, a first world war, a second, a long Cold War. Each and every time, we prevailed. . . . It will be no different this time.”
Even as the administration pressed the Europeans to do more, hopes that Russia would contribute to the fight against the Islamic State in any meaningful way were downgraded, at least for the moment, after its clash with Turkey on Tuesday. Turkish pilots shot down a Russian warplane they said had entered Turkey’s airspace. Russia denied the charge, saying that the plane was flying “one kilometer” inside Syria and that the wreckage had landed more than two miles from Turkish territory.
The incident, which took place near areas where U.S.-backed Syrian opposition fighters are combating President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Russia and Iran, also appeared to discredit ongoing Russian claims that it is targeting only “terrorist forces.” U.S. military officials who monitor the status of forces on the ground in Syria said that no Islamic State fighters were in the vicinity.
Hollande will also meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi this week. On Thursday, he flies to Moscow for talks with Putin.
“I will tell him that France can work together with Russia, if Russia concentrates its military action on [the Islamic State] . . . and if Russia fully commits to the political position in Syria,” Hollande said.
Beyond the fight against the Islamic State, Syria is in the midst of a civil war in which opposition fighters are seeking to oust Assad. Both Russia and Iran agreed 10 days ago to a coalition-backed formula to begin a political dialogue between the two sides, expected to lead to a transition government and elections.
The formula does not mention what will happen to Assad. Russia has insisted that the United States and its allies have no right to kick him out. Obama, speaking beside Hollande on Tuesday, restated his insistence that Assad is part of the problem, not the solution, and that he must go.
Russian cooperation on a political solution would be “enormously helpful in bringing about resolution of the civil war in Syria and allow us to refocus our attention” on the Islamic State, Obama said.
But he was dismissive of what the administration believes is Putin’s aspiration to take over leadership of the coalition. “Russia right now is a coalition of two — Iran and Russia — supporting Assad,” Obama said. “I think it’s important to remember that we’ve got a global coalition organized. Russia is the outlier.”
In addition to improved intelligence-sharing and protection of its own borders, Obama also wants Europe to improve its cooperation with Turkey. Washington shares European suspicion of Turkey’s motives to some extent, particularly when it comes to keeping foreign fighters, many of them European, from crossing its border to fight with the Islamic State in Syria.
But the administration has come to believe that Turkey’s vital role in the coalition should dictate more and better coordination with other allies. “My guess is . . . the Europeans are going to focus a little more on the help Turkey may need,” Vice President Biden told reporters after the news conference.
When it comes to Syrian refugees flooding Europe, Biden said, “everybody says, ‘Turkey, keep them.’ Well, that’s a lot of folks. That’s a lot of money.” Many of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have reached Europe have traveled there from Turkey, which is hosting more than 2 million of them.
Among several coalition priorities in Syria, the United States has begun a series of airstrikes in an area known as the “Mar’a line,” named for a town north of Aleppo in the northwest. There, a 60-mile stretch to the Euphrates River in the east is the only remaining part of the Syria-Turkey border under Islamic State control.
The administration had delayed beginning operations in the area because U.S. aircraft were needed in operations farther east, and it has been uncertain that local opposition forces would be able to hold the territory if it could be cleared with airstrikes.
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.