Several House Democrats want President Barack Obama to reject Moscow’s overtures on fighting ISIS, arguing Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot be trusted.
But whether to work more closely with Russia on striking Islamic State targets in Syria is among the most pressing issues that experts expect to top the agenda Tuesday when Obama huddles at the White House with French French President Francois Hollande.
Several senior national security-minded House Democrats tell CQ Roll Call that would be a bad idea.
“I don’t think the Russians can be trusted,” House Foreign Affairs ranking member Eliot L. Engel said in a brief interview last week before lawmakers departed for the Thanksgiving recess. “I think Putin has shown his true colors, not only in Syria, but in Ukraine and Crimea and other places like that.
Russia last month began flying attack missions in Syria to combat ISIS, but critics said the targets were as likely to be rebel groups trying to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime, which has a long relationship with Moscow, as ISIS.
“Putin says he’s going after ISIS, but from what we can see, he’s mainly going after the Free Syrian Army or the Kurds or remnants of the people on the ground fighting Assad,” the New York Democrat added, referring to Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.
Putin’s government altered its tone a bit in the wake of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris and after determining the violent extremist groups took down a Russian airliner over Egypt in October. Still, Obama’s fellow Democrats who follow foreign policy and national security issues echo Engle, saying he should keep Putin at arm’s length.
“He’s certainly not going to be a reliable ally,” House Intelligence ranking member Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., told CQ Roll Call. “There’s no trust there for the Russians, and nor should there be.”
A big problem, Democrats say, is the difference between Putin’s words and his deeds.
“They announced they were joining the campaign against ISIS, and promptly bombed everyone but ISIS,” Schiff said. “We’re now seeing them putting more of a focus on ISIS than they did before, but they’re still going after the moderate opposition.”
CIA Director: Paris Attack Likely Not Only Operation ‘In the Pipeline’
The two lawmakers’ comments came just days after Obama, while traveling in Asia, seemed encouraged by Russia’s newfound willingness to hit Islamic State targets in Syria.
“I’ve … welcomed Moscow going after ISIL,” Obama told CEOs in Manila, using one of several acronyms used to identify the Islamic State.
Obama said U.S. officials have seen a change in Russia’s tone since it announced that ISIS had bombed the Metrojet airliner that crashed in Egypt in October.
“If that reorientation continues,” Obama said, “we’ll be in discussions with Moscow and Mr. Putin to see if that happens.” Still, he noted “the problem has been in their initial military incursion into Syria, they have been more focused on propping up President Assad.”
On Monday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest repeated the welcome offer from Putin — but said it’s on the table only if Russia moves from propping up Assad to making defeating ISIS its priority.
Schiff bluntly said the White House must understand “they are not our allies.”
“They do not share our interests in many respects,” Schiff said. “They think their only way of aggrandizing themselves is at our expense. So the limits of any partnership with Russia are very real.”
Experts say the U.S.’s distrust of Putin could complicate the Obama-Hollande relationship.
Simond de Galbert, a former French diplomat who now is a visiting fellow at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, expects trust in Putin could be a point of contention between Hollande and Obama. Hollande is to talk with Putin in Moscow on Thursday after he meets German Chancellor in Paris on Wednesday.
“With significant pressure to do more to prevent additional attacks, France is looking at its options — and there are not many,” de Galbert said.
Obama has shown no signs that he will alter his counter-ISIS strategy, which thus far consists primarily of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and American military advisers on the ground helping local forces fight ISIS in both countries.
“Because the United States has made clear change on their part is not likely, the other option is for France to look for what the Russians can offer,” de Galbert said. “And I think Hollande will do that.”
Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, said Hollande likely will tell Obama he feels “the Russians can be useful.”
“Hollande seems to be more open than Obama to working with the Russians,” Abrams said. “If he leaves here feeling the U.S. is not willing to do more, he may turn to Russia.”