President Obama sought Tuesday to both defend a longtime NATO ally and keep the Syrian war from spiraling into an even deeper conflict after neighboring Turkey shot down a Russian warplane that it said violated its airspace.
In his first comments after the downing of the plane, Obama acknowledged that Turkey had the right to defend itself but also urged the two countries to “step back” from the brink of conflict and seek out common interests – particularly the fight against Islamic State.
Obama’s top priority, he said, is to “ensure that this does not escalate.”
The diplomatic crisis set off by the downed plane underscores the challenges that bedevil the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State. While Obama has resisted increasing pressure to step up U.S. military engagement in the wake of the Islamic State-inspired terrorist attacks in Paris, he also tried again Tuesday to coax Russia into aligning its own strategy with that of the American-led coalition, rather than attacking Syrian rebel-held positions near the Turkish border in a bid to prop up President Bashar Assad.
“If Russia is directing its energies towards Daesh and ISIL, some of those conflicts or potentials for mistakes or escalation are less likely to occur,” Obama said, using different acronyms for Islamic State.
But he first acknowledged the rights of Turkey, a longtime NATO member.
“Turkey, like every country, has a right to defend its territory and its airspace,” Obama said at a news conference alongside French President Francois Hollande, who visited the White House on Tuesday to try to strengthen the multinational coalition taking on the extremist group.
In the wake of the Islamic State-backed attacks this month in Paris, Hollande called for a “grand, unified” fight combining the efforts of the U.S.-led coalition with Russia’s own battles against the extremist group. But Obama has been skeptical that the U.S. could align seamlessly with Russia, given Moscow's support for Assad. He has long said that the removal of Assad is crucial to undercutting the ideology that drives fighters to Islamic State, which controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq.
Both Obama and Hollande sought to put the onus on Russia to join their coalition, and Obama cast Russia as part of an isolated faction with Assad and Iran that would not succeed in its aims in Syria.
“Our view from the start has been that Russia is welcome to be part of this broad-based coalition that we’ve set up. ... The challenge has been Russia’s focus on propping up Assad rather than focusing on” Islamic State, Obama said.
The loss of the Russian plane also underscores Obama's concerns about instituting a so-called no-fly zone in northern Syria, which some presidential candidates have called for in criticizing Obama's strategy against Islamic State.
The Kremlin disputes Turkey's assertions that the Russian plane was flying over Turkey near its border with Syria, presumably as part of Moscow's military campaign against Islamic State fighters. Officials in Turkey, a NATO member, say their forces gave numerous warnings before firing. NATO leaders must now look into the dispute at a time when they had hoped to be focused on intensifying joint efforts against Islamic State.
Whether Turkey’s action will alter Obama’s course against the Islamic State militants remains an open question. Obama gave no indication Tuesday that he was swayed by Hollande’s arguments.
After leaving Washington, Hollande is scheduled to hold talks in Germany with Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday. He then is set to head to Moscow on Thursday to meet with Putin, a session that world leaders had hoped would pull the Russians more fully into the coalition fight against Islamic State.
In remarks to reporters after his meeting with Hollande, Obama strongly condemned the attack in Paris, calling it an assault on “the very idea that people of different races and religions and backgrounds can live together in peace.”
“In short,” he said, “this was not only a strike against one of the world's great cities, it was an attack against the world itself.”
For more White House coverage, follow @cparsons