WASHINGTON — Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter plane shouldn’t lead to further wartime escalation in the region, President Barack Obama insisted at a press conference Tuesday.
But he maintained Turkey had a right to defend its airspace and charged that Russian air activity near the Turkey-Syria border has been an “ongoing problem.”
Turkey said Tuesday it shot down the Russian plane with a missile strike after repeated warnings to the plane that it had flown over its territory.
Saying he expected to speak with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the coming days to discuss the incident, Obama urged Russia and Turkey to communicate about the details of the operation in order to decrease the chance of escalation.
The downing of the Russian plane complicated Hollande’s visit to the White House, where he pressed Obama for greater global cooperation on battling ISIS, including with Moscow.
Hollande has openly called for a greater international effort to push back ISIS, whose killing spree in Paris two weeks ago was the worst terror attack on French soil in more than half a century.
He said Tuesday greater cooperation between the United States and Russia is required in battling ISIS, though persistent U.S. skepticism about Putin’s intentions in Syria have until now prevented any significant military coordination between the two countries.
“We want to gather all countries,” Hollande said. “We do not want to exclude anyone.”
But he also said Russia must pledge to target the Islamic State terrorists instead of moderate Syrian forces opposed to the government of Bashar al-Assad, a requirement Obama also insisted upon during Tuesday’s press conference.
“The strikes against the moderate opposition only bolster the Assad regime,” Obama said, noting that many of those opposition fighters have the support of Turkey and that the Russian strikes are taking place very close to the Turkish border.
Obama said that he and Hollande agreed that Russia could help in the fight against ISIS if it changed the focus of its military activities in Syria.
“Russia could play a more constructive role if it shifts the focus of its strikes to defeating ISIS,” Obama said.
He also said the U.S. and France were sharing intelligence information to help France coordinate its strikes on ISIS and called on Europe to do more to stop the flow of foreign fighters, share passenger lists and exchange information across borders.
Obama also cited the incident with Turkey as a reason for Russia to turn its focus to fighting only ISIS in Syria, saying that “some of those conflicts or potential for escalation are less likely to occur” if it narrowed its sights.
He said the encounter also “underscores the importance of our moving the political track along as quickly as possible” when it comes to resolving the Syrian civil war, which ISIS has exploited to seize territory.
Obama called ISIS a “scourge” that “must be defeated.”
“We’ll deliver justice to these terrorists and those who sent them,” Obama said. ISIS “cannot be tolerated. It must be destroyed. And we must do it together.”
“The United States and France stand united,” Obama stressed.
Hollande’s visit to Washington comes amid a spate of jet-set diplomacy for the French leader. He’ll meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel Wednesday. He met in Paris with British Prime Minister David Cameron Monday.
Obama, who returned from a week-long foreign swing on Monday, made clear in the aftermath of the Paris attacks he wasn’t considering a change in strategy, saying instead he was planning to intensify the U.S.-led coalition’s air campaign in Iraq and Syria.
In his first press conference after the attacks, in Antalya, Turkey, Obama argued testily that alternative plans from Republicans ignored realities on the ground, saying that his own interactions with wounded troops instilled a wariness toward war.
After coming under intense criticism for his response to the attacks, Obama turned up his rhetoric on ISIS Sunday, saying during a press conference in Malaysia that his efforts to stamp out the group would succeed.
“Destroying ISIL is not only a realistic goal,” Obama said. “We’re going to get it done and we’re going to pursue it. It’s going to get done.”
But he nonetheless departed Asia insisting the strategy he’s utilized against ISIS is working — and that other options, like sending in ground troops, aren’t being considered.
The White House signaled Monday that it already believes U.S. contributions to the anti-ISIS effort are sufficient.
“The United States is certainly pulling more than our own weight when it comes to the contribution behind this coalition,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. “That’s something that we’re glad to do. That is in line with the long tradition of American leadership. It certainly is a tradition that this president believes in.”