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Obama: Turkey has the right to defend itself

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. President Barack Obama urged Russia and NATO allies to take all steps Tuesday to “discourage any escalation” after a Russian warplane was downed along Turkey’s border with Syria.

The incident has been denounced by Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “stab in the back,” and could be a significant setback to Western-led efforts to work closer with Moscow in battling the Islamic State and seeking a resolution to Syria’s nearly five-year civil war.

“Turkey like every country has the right to defend its territory and its airspace,” Obama said during a joint news conference in Washington with French President François Hollande. Their talks focused on the Paris attacks and the broader strategies against the Islamic State.

But Obama called on all sides to “take measures to discourage any escalation.”

Obama did not say whether intelligence reports supported claims by NATO-member Turkey that the Russian fighter crossed into Turkish airspace. He said, however, it underscored the risks of Russia’s military operations near the Turkish border.

A U.S.-led coalition is also conducting airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq, raising further fears of potential inadvertent conflicts from the overlapping air campaigns.

Russia has launched nearly two months of airstrikes to support its key ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad. But many Russian attacks also have hit anti-Assad rebels, including some factions backed by Turkey and its Western allies.

After meeting with Hollande at the White House, Obama declared “total solidarity” with France, saying his planned trip next week to Paris for a climate change summit is a “powerful rebuke” to terrorism.

“We cannot succumb to fear,” Obama said.

In a jab at U.S. politicians raising questions about accepting Syrian refugees, Obama also praised France’s decision to accept tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing warfare and the Islamic State.

“We will not allow those who want to destroy what we have built. …  We need a joint response,” said Hollande, who is holding a series of high-level meetings seeking to strengthen military and diplomatic pressures on the Islamic State.

Hollande vowed to intensify the country’s airstrikes in Syria, citing Islamic State supply lines and command centers as top targets. But he noted that France has no plans to send ground forces in Syria.

“The Paris attacks generated a lot of emotion, but that’s not enough” Hollande says, adding he notes the compassion but declared: “We must act.”

Hollande’s trip to Washington, just 11 days after terrorists allied with the Islamic State killed 130 civilians in Paris, comes as the French president is jetting to several world capitals to strengthen the military and covert intelligence response to militants based in Syria and Iraq.

On Monday, Hollande toured the deadliest site of the Nov. 13 strikes, the Bataclan theater, with British Prime Minister David Cameron. Later this week, the French president will meet with the leaders of Germany, Italy and Russia.

Speaking to reporters Monday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest declined to discuss in detail how the international approach to push back the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, might change. But said he “wouldn’t downplay the significance of additional expressions of solidarity and support” can have on a nation that is reeling from a devastating loss.

“This a nation that’s concerned about the security situation inside their country,” he said. “And they can and should take a lot of solace in knowing the most powerful country in the world has their back and is standing with them in this difficult time.”

He noted that French airstrikes carried out over Syria last week were based on targets that were identified using U.S. intelligence and were backed up by a U.S. search-and-rescue team in case the strikes went awry.

While Hollande is working actively to coordinate more closely with Russia, this new overture is likely to create some friction with administration officials.

Earnest said if “Russia is prepared to commit the kinds of resources that the United States has in a way that’s integrated with the international community to defeating ISIL, we’d welcome that contribution,” but he expressed deep skepticism over whether that would actually happen.

© 2015, The Washington Post

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