LONDON – As British jets opened airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Syria and Germany prepared to send troops and aircraft to the region, Russia’s president called on the world Thursday to brandish “one powerful fist” in the fight against terrorism.
Yet even as international efforts to defeat the extremists grew, animosity between Russia and Turkey only intensified.
Hours after Britain’s Parliament authorized military action in Syria, its Tornado warplanes struck oil fields in eastern Syria that help finance IS. “This strikes a very real blow at the oil and the revenue on which the Daesh terrorists depend,” Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
Both the U.S.-led coalition and Russian warplanes have struck the extremists’ oil facilities and Russia has drawn heated international attention to the issue by accusing Turkish authorities of profiting from oil trade with IS — allegations Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has strongly denied.
The Russian allegations came after last week’s downing by Turkey of a Russian warplane near the Syria-Turkey border. Turkey insists the plane had violated its airspace, but Russia vehemently rejects that contention.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his state-of-the-nation address, accused Turkey of “a treacherous war crime” and bitingly suggested “Allah must have punished Turkey’s ruling clique by depriving it of sense and reason.”
Putin also accused Washington and its allies of turning Iraq, Syria and Libya into a “zone of chaos and anarchy threatening the entire world” by supporting change of regimes in those countries.
“We must leave all arguments and disagreements behind and make one powerful fist, a single anti-terror front, which would work on the basis of international law under the aegis of the United Nations,” Putin said.
Germany on Thursday prepared to send reconnaissance aircraft to the Middle East as coalition forces stepped up efforts to fight the militants. In all, up to 1,200 German soldiers would be deployed to support the international coalition fighting the Islamic State group. Two Tornados and a tanker could be sent to Turkey’s Incirlik air base next week if the German Parliament approves the mission Friday as expected.
German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said the mission would have three components: to protect French naval operations, to provide intelligence though reconnaissance aircraft and satellite observation, and to offer logistical support like in-air refuelling for allied planes.
“The goal… is to fight and contain IS, and destroy their safe havens and their ability to lead worldwide terror operations,” she told reporters in Berlin before heading to Ankara for talks with her Turkish counterpart.
France welcomed the first British airstrikes in Syria, saying they were a sign of the European solidarity promised after the deadly Nov. 13 attacks on Paris claimed by IS militants.
In a statement Thursday, French President Francois Hollande said the British Parliament’s approval of the airstrikes and the upcoming German vote were a sign that Europeans would stand together after the attacks that killed 130 people and left hundreds wounded in Paris.
French fighter jets joined the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State extremists in Iraq in 2014 and expanded their mission to IS targets in Syria in September.
Other European officials also appealed for a joint global response. Diplomats at an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe conference in Belgrade said Thursday that only a unified front could be effective in countering the threat of terrorism.
German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier described the situation as “too dangerous, and freedom and stability too fragile, for us to counter each other” — an apparent reference to the spat caused by last week’s downing of the Russian plane by Turkey.
But international cohesion remained elusive as Putin again accused Turkey of profiting from oil trade with IS.
“We know who in Turkey are filling their pockets and allowing terrorists to earn money by selling oil stolen from Syria,” Putin said in his state of the union address.
“For that money the bandits are recruiting mercenaries, buying weapons and staging cruel terror attacks aimed against our citizens, as well as citizens of France, Lebanon, Mali and other countries,” he said.
The Russian and Turkish foreign ministers met in Belgrade on the sidelines of the OSCE meeting — the first senior-level meeting since the incident — but the exchange was frosty.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he offered his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, condolences over the death of a Russian pilot, adding: “It would be unrealistic to say that the problem has been overcome.”
“Our hope is that they avoid making unfounded claims,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Syria, Russian troops moved to fortify their positions and expand a military base, adding fortifications and developing its runways in a sign they intend to use it as their second air base in the country, Syrian activists said Thursday.
The work underway at the Shaayrat air base, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) southeast of the city of Homs, could also signal Moscow’s intention to step up airstrikes in the country’s central region where the Islamic State group is active.
Heintz reported from Moscow. Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Jovana Gec in Belgrade, David Rising in Berlin and Menelaos Hadjicostis in Akrotiri, Cyprus, contributed to this report.