Obama and Hollande not on the same page

Friday 04/12/2015
US President Barack Obama (R) and French President François Hollande at the White House, on November 24th.

Washington - During his news confer­ence with US President Barack Obama at the White House, French President François Hol­lande underscored the urgency that France feels towards fighting terror­ism and finding a solution for Syria following the terrorist attacks on Paris.

“There is a new mindset now,” Hollande said November 24th. “The risk is everywhere due to Daesh. We therefore must act,” the French leader said using an Arabic term for the Islamic State (ISIS).

Hollande’s words were directed at his American hosts as much as at others and they reflected the frus­tration and disappointment among the French about what they see as US reluctance to do more.

According to Joseph Bahout, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie En­dowment for International Peace who formerly served in the French Foreign Ministry, French frustra­tion with US caution to be more ac­tive in the war against ISIS was the key message Hollande carried to the White House. The second mes­sage was that the anti-ISIS coalition needs to be more assertive on the ground. US talk about “containing” ISIS has left America’s allies “frus­trated”, Bahout said.

Obama emphasised “unity of pur­pose” with France. He said he had met his advisers and put together a plan to accelerate and advance the pressure that can be put on ISIS. “We intend to execute these plans,” Obama said. He did not elaborate on these plans.

Obama did, however, call on the European Union to “finally imple­ment the agreement that has been long in the works that would require airlines to share passenger infor­mation, so we can do more to stop foreign terrorists from entering our countries undetected”.

The US president agreed with Hol­lande that Russia could play a more constructive role if it were to shift focus to defeating ISIS. He said he considered the Vienna process “the best way to bring peace to Syria” and said it “requires active Russian support for a ceasefire and a politi­cal transition away from Assad to a democratically elected government that can unite the Syrian people against terrorism”.

Obama’s words did not reflect the same urgency that Hollande ex­pressed when he said: “We need a joint response, an implacable joint response. France and the US stand­ing together to bring that joint re­sponse.”

The French president announced that he and Obama agreed to “scale up our strikes both in Syria and in Iraq, to broaden our scope, to strengthen our intelligence sharing regarding the targets we must aim at”.

Bahout said the French were very disappointed by what they heard at the White House. They saw that Obama was sticking to his original discourse and showed no indication or willingness to change, even in the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris.

“Besides the technical issues, such as better intelligence coordi­nation, nothing has changed in the fundamentals on the Syria issue,” Bahout said. “The Obama admin­istration is still convinced it is on the right track, still believes that Vienna will lead to a political solu­tion through working with the Rus­sians.”

This also is the French policy. Hollande announced at the White House that he was planning to tell Russian President Vladimir Putin that “France can work together with Russia if Russia concentrates its mil­itary action on Daesh, against ISIS and if Russia commits to the politi­cal solution in Syria. We do not want to exclude anyone.”

The problem with the US and French positions is that both are banking on the good will of the Rus­sians to guarantee the success of the political process in Syria. So far Putin has not shown that he will be charitable in giving the West any concessions when he knows he does not have to do so, and nobody will, or can, make him do that.