Obama, Hollande talks complicated by Russian plane incident

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WASHINGTON >> President Barack Obama will stand in solidarity with French President Francois Hollande at the White House Tuesday, 11 days after the Paris attacks, in a visit complicated by Turkey's shoot-down of a Russian warplane.

Hollande's trip to Washington is part of a diplomatic push to get the international community to bolster the campaign against the Islamic State, the militant group that has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks. The French president planned to urge Obama to work with Russia to build a new coalition to fight the extremists.

Even before the incident between Turkey and Russia, Hollande faced a tough challenge in getting Obama to agree to a partnership with Moscow. The U.S. is deeply skeptical of Russian President Vladimir Putin's motivations, given his long-standing support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The White House had no immediate comment on how the shoot-down of the Russian plane would impact the talks between Obama and Hollande. U.S. forces were not involved in the incident, according to an American defense official, who was not authorized to discuss the incident publicly and so spoke on condition of anonymity.

Nearly five years of clashes between Assad's government and rebel forces have created a vacuum that allowed the Islamic State to thrive. The group appears to now be focusing on targets outside its base in Syria and Iraq, including attacks in Lebanon and Turkey and the downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt.

Given the rash of attacks, Obama is now facing increased pressure at home and abroad to ramp up U.S. efforts to destroy the militants. So far, Obama is resisting calls to either change or significantly escalate his approach, and instead is focused on getting other countries to offer more counterintelligence, humanitarian and military assistance.

"The United States is certainly pulling more than our own weight," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. "And we believe that there is more that can be done if countries are willing to contribute additional resources."

The U.S. campaign has centered largely on launching airstrikes, while training and assisting security forces on the ground in Iraq. Efforts to train and equip moderate rebel groups in Syria have struggled, and Obama has authorized the deployment of 50 special operations forces to the country to jumpstart the program.

France has stepped up its airstrikes following the Paris attacks, relying in part on U.S. intelligence to hit targets in Raqqa, the Islamic State group's stronghold in Syria. British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Monday he would seek parliamentary approval this week for Britain to begin airstrikes as well.

Hollande wants the U.S.-led coalition to start cooperating with Russia, which is also launching airstrikes in Syria. While Putin says his country is targeting the Islamic State militants, the U.S. contends Moscow is going after rebels fighting Assad, a Kremlin ally whom the U.S. wants pushed out.

Last week, Hollande called for the U.S. and Russia to set aside their policy divisions over Syria and "fight this terrorist army in a broad, single coalition." But his office acknowledges that "coordination" sounds like a far more realistic goal.

"We are not talking about a command center. We are talking about coordination of methods and exchange of intelligence," a French diplomat said on Monday. The diplomat wasn't authorized to publicly discuss the subject and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Earnest said the U.S. would "continue the conversation" with Putin but suggested Obama would make no promises to Hollande during Tuesday's visit.

From Washington, Hollande will travel to Moscow for meetings with Putin.

Beyond their discussions on military cooperation, Obama and Hollande are expected to discuss diplomatic efforts to achieve a political transition in Syria. The U.S. and France support a transition that would lead to the departure of Assad, who has overseen a civil war in his country that created a vacuum for the Islamic State group to thrive.

While Russia is backing a new diplomatic effort in Syria, Moscow still refuses to support steps that explicitly call for removing Assad from power.

The quagmire in Syria has dragged on for nearly five years, and criticism of Obama's strategy appears only to grow louder.

On Sunday, both Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Leon Panetta, Obama's former defense secretary, said the U.S. effort wasn't measuring up. Feinstein called for more aggressive action and additional special operations forces in Syria.

"I don't think the approach is sufficient to the job," Feinstein said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

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On Twitter follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC and Kathleen Hennessey at http://twitter.com/khennessey.


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