- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 1, 2015

With Islamist terrorism overshadowing his starring role at a climate change summit, President Obama tried to play peacemaker between Turkey and Russia Tuesday amid signs that escalating tensions could further hinder the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against the Islamic State.

At a meeting in Paris, Mr. Obama urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to “de-escalate” the confrontation with Russia in the wake of Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane last week and concentrate instead on the military campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIL.

“We all have a common enemy. That is ISIL,” Mr. Obama said. “I want to make sure that we focus on that threat.”

Mr. Obama, who delivered a similar message this week to Russian President Vladimir Putin, also expressed optimism that Moscow will undergo a “shift in calculations” in the coming months to back away from military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad. The U.S. hopes that a political transition in Syria will help the coalition fight the Islamic State more effectively.

But the president’s hopes for cooperation quickly suffered a setback when Russia announced a list of economic sanctions it will impose on Turkey as payback for the shootdown of its plane, and moved to install a surface-to-air missile system at a military base in Syria. Sources told Reuters that Moscow might also freeze a major gas pipeline project to Turkey.



The president, who is pushing Congress and governors to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees next year, also urged Mr. Erdogan to seal Turkey’s border with Syria to cut off the flow of money and foreign fighters to the Islamic State.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the U.S. ultimately doesn’t hold the cards for defeating the Islamic State in Syria.

“Whether it happens or not is up to Iran and Russia,” Mr. Kerry said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine published Tuesday.

While Mr. Obama has raised his rhetoric about destroying the Islamic State since the Paris attacks, Mr. Kerry said the goal is to “reduce it to a nuisance, where it’s not a daily threat.”

“Obviously, you’ll have a few radicals around, but you terminate its ability to have a core, a state, as well as revenue-raising, paying salaries, hiring people, attracting people and giving orders to people,” Mr. Kerry said. “All of that can come to an abrupt end if we get our act together.”

Mr. Erdogan said Turkey is “determined to keep up the fight” against the Islamic State, and wants better relations with Russia. But he also denounced Russia for carrying out airstrikes against ethnic Turks in a region of Syria where he said the extremist group is not operating, killing more than 500 people.

“They are Turkish descendants,” Mr. Erdogan said. “That area is continuously bombed.”

Mr. Putin has said Turkey shot down the Russian jet to protect supplies of oil from Islamic State, a claim that Mr. Erdogan called “slander.”

The simmering tensions between two major players in the Syrian crisis stole some of Mr. Obama’s legacy-building spotlight at the conference on global warming in Paris, where Islamic State militants killed 130 people in a series of coordinated attacks on Nov. 13. The president even said his work on climate change is “akin” to his efforts at countering terrorism, saying both challenges require patience and resolve.

“When something doesn’t work, we have to change our approach,” the president said. “But most of all, we have to push away fear, and have confidence that human innovation, our values, our judgment, our solidarity will win out.”

He pointed to Parisians as an example of why the Islamic State cannot win over the long term.

“You can’t tear down Paris because of the demented actions of a handful of individuals,” Mr. Obama said. “The beauty, the joy, the life, the culture, the people, the diversity — that’s going to win out every time.”

But the military campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq hasn’t “contained” the extremist group, as Mr. Obama insisted only a month ago. The tensions between Russia and Turkey have complicated U.S. efforts to prod Moscow to attack the Islamic State instead of U.S.-backed Syrian opposition groups.

Mr. Obama stressed the U.S. support for its NATO ally, saying Turkey has a “right to defend itself and its airspace and its territory.”

He also reminded Russia of its costly war in Afghanistan in warning Russia against getting bogged down in its military campaign to prop up Mr. Assad. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support a pro-Moscow government, but retreated a decade later after heavy losses to Afghan guerrillas backed by the U.S.

“I think Mr. Putin understands that with Afghanistan fresh in the memory, for him to simply get bogged down in an inconclusive and paralyzing civil conflict is not the outcome that he’s looking for,” Mr. Obama said.

The president said he did not expect Mr. Putin to change course quickly in Syria, but expressed hope that Moscow eventually will align itself with the U.S.-led coalition.

“I don’t expect that you’re going to see a 180[-degree] turn on their strategy over the next several weeks,” Mr. Obama said of Russia. “They have invested for years now in keeping Assad in power. But I’m confident that we are on the winning side of this and that, ultimately, Russia is going to recognize the threat that ISIL poses to its country, to its people, is the most significant, and that they need to align themselves with those of us who are fighting ISIL.”

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