On Tuesday, Russia and France both separately struck Islamic State of Iraq and Syria targets in Raqqa, the de facto capital of the terrorists responsible for last week's massacre in Paris that left over 100 people dead. The Russian and French military attacks come as part of an emerging effort on the part of both countries to target ISIS with escalating and lethal force. But the campaign also presents Russia with an opportunity to take a changing role in the Syria conflict—and, by extension, on the global stage.
President Francois Hollande called Friday's attacks on Paris an "act of war against France," and vowed to "destroy" ISIS. At Monday's G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, President Vladimir Putin noted that the ISIS attacks "show that we have to unite our efforts to fighting this evil, something that we should have done a long time ago."
A similarly determined declaration came Tuesday from Moscow, as the Kremlin officially acknowledged for the first time that an "improvised explosive device" downed Metrojet Flight 9268 over the Sinai Peninsula last month, killing all 224 people aboard, an attack for which an ISIS affiliate in the peninsula later claimed responsibility. And Putin hasn't been shy about voicing his anger: "[O]ur combat air operations in Syria will not just be continued," he said. "They must be strengthened, so that the criminals understand that retribution is inevitable." Putin concluded by warning that "all who attempt to assist the criminals should know that the consequences of such attempts ... will lie entirely on their shoulders."
When Russia's Syria campaign launched in September, it was intended as a conspicuous display of strength and leadership amid the perceived inefficacy of the United States' comparatively more measured strategy. Russia sought to re-assert its position as a regional player, and wanted to protect its interests in the region, which have long been a source of contention with the West. But now, the tone of the campaign is of retaliation and retribution, of ultimately bringing the perpetrators to justice, wherever they may be.
With the prospect of France cooperating more generally with its broader Syria campaign, Russia now stands to gain the implicit credibility and validation of a Western partner in its efforts.
Putin's resolute words this week echoed the statements he made as prime minister to a fear-gripped Russia following multiple apartment building bombings in 1999, when he famously pledged that he would pursue the Chechen terrorists suspected to be behind the attacks: "If we catch them on the toilet," he boldly claimed, "we will rub them out in the outhouse." This old quote has already surfaced among French Twitter users, who have contrasted Putin's blunt rhetoric with President Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls' less explicit statements. These same Twitter users, not coincidentally, have called for a more hawkish response from the French government.
Beyond press releases and official statements, Hollande's urging for an intensified coalition campaign to decisively confront ISIS underscores a potential new form of cooperation between Russia and France—yet one that may also differ between the two in intent and desired outcomes. The two countries' move toward coordinating their responses to the devastating attacks inflicted on their citizens in past weeks underscores the prospects of a significant shift in their respective Syria policies leading up to Hollande and Putin's meeting in Moscow planned for November 26.
The shaping of a broader coalition would significantly impact the conflict in Syria, as well as ISIS' international response. Russia's heavy-handed reaction to domestic Islamic extremism—real or perceived—means that its approach to Syria will likely be equally forceful, evidenced by its second day of airstrikes around Raqqa on Wednesday. Whether France provides implicit or explicit support for an escalated response in this vein, or even for an approach that moves beyond airstrikes, may help to validate Russia's stance. France's ramped-up airstrikes and calls for greater international involvement have also conveniently shifted negative attention away from Russia over Crimea and the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. Instead, these moves have highlighted Russia's role as a potential key player in an international effort to neutralize ISIS and negotiate a peace settlement between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels.
Prior to the Paris attacks, France had been advocating for Assad's removal as a prerequisite for a peace settlement; after Friday, its immediate priority has shifted to aggressively taking on ISIS. Russia has claimed that it is less interested in who is in power in Syria, and more focused on guaranteeing Russian security—which has principally centered on striking Islamist and rebel groups other than ISIS. For Putin, Assad remains the most stable, if not so subtly preferred, option to remain in power for the time being, and ISIS presents the common threat, irrespective of policy positions on Assad.
The Paris attacks, and revelations in recent days that at least four of the attackers were French citizens, have confirmed Russia's long-held fear that its own citizens—an estimated 2,500 of whom are already fighting with ISIS in Syria—could just as feasibly return to carry out attacks in Russian cities as part of the organization's broadening international offensive. A video allegedly released by ISIS last week threatening to target Russia in the near future has only added to these concerns.
Like France, Russia has a substantial Muslim minority, and an equally complicated historical legacy with that populace: There's been plenty of territorial expansion; linguistic and religious policies; and problems with xenophobia, racism, and anti-Muslim sentiment. However, unlike France, a key source of concern for Russia is purely geographic: The close proximity of Russia's southern border and the restive Caucasus and Central Asia to the Syrian conflict, and accordingly the ease of movement for ISIS or other radical fighters between the front and the homeland.
The Kremlin has already emphasized that Putin spoke with Hollande, and that Putin has instructed Russian naval commanders to "establish direct contact with the French and work with them as allies." With the prospect of France cooperating more generally with its broader Syria campaign, Russia now stands to gain the implicit credibility and validation of a Western partner in its efforts. But beyond that, Putin has an opportunity to use this momentum to target all of the groups Russia perceives as enemies and antithetical to its interests in Syria and the region—and strive for an outcome most favorable for Russia—rather than deliberating on Assad's fate.
Though Russia's involvement in Syria has previously been in clear opposition to U.S. and other Western powers' policy, greater cooperation with France may serve to broaden the Russian public's consideration of the Syrian conflict as constituting not only a Russian problem, but also a common Western, and indeed global, one. Though Russian public opinion is overwhelmingly supportive of Putin, attitudes on the direction of the Syria campaign in the aftermath of the Flight 9268 tragedy are more divided: A press release from the Russian Public Opinion Research Center on Monday reported that the largest portion of respondents supported the current course in Syria (38 percent), with 15 percent recommending that Russian authorities be even more active, and 22 percent advising that Putin act "more cautiously."
This change in thinking may also have significant repercussions for Russian public perception of the West's intent. A recent Levada Center poll indicated that many Russians continue to see the West as "hostile" and perceive Western nations to be actively seeking the "weakening and degradation of Russia." With France potentially working more consistently in coordination with Russia on a common security objective in Syria, this perception may subsequently change. Rather than working to somehow undermine or compromise Russia, France now promises to be a partner and ally in the wider battle against a common foe.
Ultimately, the greatest risk of an escalated engagement involving both Russia and France, even if the two do not formally commit to a joint approach or coalition, is that it is precisely the outcome ISIS wants—that Russia and France's combined response constitutes a full-on conflict with the West, involving two of the world's largest military powers. How the French and Russian political establishments are able to focus their efforts and the extent of their anti-ISIS operations, as well as respond to additional threats against their capitals and citizens, will influence the future direction of the conflict and ISIS' reaction. In committing to an expanded front against ISIS, France risks having the most to lose, while Russia has the most to gain.