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Europe

Talks turn to Russian airstrikes in Syria as leaders meet in Paris

A four-way meeting on Ukraine took a detour on Friday, amid mounting Western worries over the targets and intentions of Russian airstrikes in Syria. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Paris.

The four-way meeting between the leaders of France, Russia, Germany and Ukraine followed the first air attacks by both France and Russia in Syrian territory this week. The comparisons, however, end there.

France announced that its air campaign on Sunday destroyed an "Islamic State" training camp allegedly set up by a French citizen. Despite denials from Moscow, Russian strikes this week appeared mostly aimed at shoring up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The two military operations reflect the battling visions over ending Syria's bloodbath that were on the table at the Elysee Palace, as President Francois Hollande held talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The leaders shook hands and posed briefly before the cameras, looking strained.

The two men "tried to narrow down differences on political transition," Reuters news agency reported, citing an aide to Hollande. They later met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to discuss another impasse: the crisis in Ukraine.

"Islamic State" (IS) "must be targeted, and not anything else," Hollande said ahead of Friday's meeting with Putin.

A joint statement by Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US expressed concern over Russia's military actions in Syria, saying it would "only fuel more extremism and radicalization." The US and its allies fear Russian airstrikes could strengthen Assad rather than hitting IS fighters.

The statement, published on the website of Turkey's Foreign Ministry late Thursday, called on Russia to immediately cease attacks on the Syrian opposition and to focus on fighting the "Islamic State."

Syria to participate in UN talks

Speaking at the UN in New York, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said his country would participate in UN talks aimed at launching negotations to bring an end to the civil war. He said he understood the talks to be "mainly to exchange ideas" and non-binding.

He also questioned the strategy of trying to use airpower alone to battle IS and other hard-line groups.

"Terrorism cannot be fought only from the air, and all of the previous operations to combat it have only served its spread and outbreak," Al-Moallem said.

"Airstrikes are useless unless they are conducted in cooperation with the Syrian army, the only force in Syria that is combating terrorism," he added.

'Assad is at the origin of the problem'

At a joint press conference on Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hollande insisted that a potential solution to the Syria crisis could not involve its president, Bashar al-Assad. Talks would need to involve opposition groups, as well as regional players like Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, apart from the US and the EU, they said.

Hollande also defended airstrikes against IS in Syria, saying that the terror outfit was a direct threat because it was planning strikes in France. The country has long been a key target for Islamists, including those who killed 17 people during January's terrorist attacks in Paris. Many of those extremists are homegrown. Indeed, the government has claimed that nearly 1,900 French citizens and residents are directly involved in jihadist networks, and several hundred have joined extremist groups in Syria and Iraq.

"There will be other strikes, there will be other engagements to protect us, to ensure that these training camps run by foreigners are unable to continue to train terrorists who will attack us in France and Europe," French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned in a interview on BFM TV earlier this week.

Airstrikes questioned

But whether the strikes will help turn the tide of Syria's bloody four-year conflict is another matter. "The Americans have been bombing for about eight or nine months now," said Francois Heisbourg, a special adviser at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research. "And as far as I can tell, the 'Islamic State' is occupying more territory and is controlling a larger share of the population than when the bombing began."

While targeted airstrikes against individual jihadist cells might work, "the bombing isn't reversing the tide or even containing it" in Syria, Heisbourg told DW, adding that Iraq is a slightly different situation.

Other factors besides militant Islam are driving the French offensive. Tens of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees have flocked to Europe, and many more are on the way. The 24,000 new refugees Paris has agreed to take in amount to only a fraction of the influx - and French authorities face a dearth of housing for asylum seekers already in the country.

As the only European Union leader to launch strikes in Syria, Hollande has also struck a sharply tougher tone than his two major counterparts. Britain has suggested a political transition period that might include Assad, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said talks on Syria's future should include the Syrian leader.

"The more you bring Bashar into the loop, the more you're going to increase the intensity of the civil war in Syria," Heisbourg said of Merkel's remarks. "The way she speaks is exactly what you would do to have more war refugees. Intensify the war, make sure Bashar is at the pivot of the political system. That is an awful recipe."

Karte Russische Präsenz und Luftangriffe in Syrien englisch NEU!

Looking ahead to elections

For the moment, French public opinion is on Hollande's side. A pair of polls in September found that more than half of the population supports military action against the "Islamic State," including French boots on the ground.

That sentiment was echoed by retiree Brice Bourdon, out shopping in Paris on a sunny afternoon.

"I think it's quite useful that France joins the United States in hitting Daesh," Bourdon said, using another name for IS. "I think it will help weaken them there. It will not help for terrorism in France or the US, because these people will come anyway. But at least it's better than doing nothing."

For once, Hollande's many critics are surprisingly muted, with both center and far-right politicians coming out in support of the air campaign. "We need to extend the airstrikes," said former Prime Minister Alain Juppe of the conservative Republicans party. "But their effectiveness is limited. We saw that in Iraq. It only stabilizes the situation."

Still, it's uncertain whether Hollande's actions will translate into votes for an unpopular leader, as France gears up for regional elections in December and eyes a presidential vote in 2017. Public support for military action may melt, particularly following claims by a Syrian activist group that Sunday's strikes killed child soldiers.

"The only thing that will really have a political impact in 2017 will be whether there has been a new terror operation on French soil" similar to the Paris attacks, Heisbourg said. "If such an event happens, there will be all sorts of repercussions."