Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated a call for a broad international coalition to fight against terrorism after 128 people died in attacks in Paris reportedly perpetrated by Islamic State (IS) sympathisers.
"This tragedy has become another testimony of terrorism's barbarity, which poses a challenge to human civilisation," Putin said in a telegram to French counterpart Francois Hollande, according to the Kremlin. "It is clear that the real unification of the international community's efforts is needed for an effective fight against this evil."
Putin is expected to have repeated this call during a 35 minute meeting with US President Barack Obama at the G20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey, as part of a drive to use the Syrian crisis and terrorist wave to end Russia's pariah status with the West.
Paris was declared three days of mourning after at least seven teams of black-clad gunmen attacked cafes, restaurants and a concert hall in the evening of Friday 13th, cutting down people in cold blood.
IS has claimed responsibility for the attack and one of the gunmen was heard to shout: “This is for Syria,” in the Bataclan concert hall where 82 people lost their lives.
This is but the latest terror attack to cause grief and fear in recent months. Two weeks ago, 224 Russian holidaymakers were killed by a suspected bomb, detonated on their plane returning home to St Petersburg and killing everyone on board.
Moscow also apparently came perilously close to suffering a very similar fate to Paris only a week ago. Russian authorities arrested 20 suspected terrorists reportedly planning attacks in the Russian capital on October 20 following a massive security operation. The men were reportedly members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, mostly from Central Asian countries, Tajikistan in particular.
Turkey is also still mourning the death of more than 100 people after two bombs ripped through a peaceful crowd of demonstrators in Ankara at the end of October. It also appears to have suffered another near-miss last week. Turkish authorities suspect a high-profile British jihadist detained in Turkey last week may have been planning attacks in Istanbul similar to those in Paris, two security sources told Reuters on November 15. The man is thought to be Aine Lesley Davis, an associate of the IS militant dubbed "Jihadi John", who was recently reported killed.
ISIS has claimed responsibility for all three attacks.
The world mourns for France
The world's grief was on show as iconic buildings from New York, Dubai to Moscow were lit with the French tricolour in honour of the fallen on the streets of Paris.
“The skies are darkened by the horrific attacks that took place in Paris,” Obama told a joint press conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after arriving in Antalya for the start of the G20 summit on November 15. “The killing of innocent people, based on a twisted ideology, is an attack not just on France, not just on Turkey, but an attack on civilised world. We stand in solidarity with French people in hunting down the perpetrators of this crime and bringing them to justice”.
We will redouble efforts with other members of the coalition to bring about a peaceful transition in Syria and to eliminate ISIL," said Obama, adding that the US will help Turkey and Europe in the effort to reduce the flow of migrants. As for his part, Erdogan said: “There will be a strong message on fighting terrorism coming out of the [G20] summit”.
Paris tragedy poignant for Russia
The scale of the Paris attack has shocked the world and will probably push all other items on the G20 summit programme into the background.
Antalya is now in a total security locked down, with some 12,000 police deployed in the nearby resort town of Belek where G20 leaders gathered for the summit. A one kilometre radius exclusion zone around the summit site has been thrown up. Security checkpoints with face recognition systems have been installed. Airspace and the coast of the Antalya region are closed to traffic. During the meetings, no tourists are not allowed to stay in the hotels in Belek, which has been declared a high-security red zone area until the end of the summit.
Putin was very fast to react to the tragedy in Paris, sending his condolences to Hollande, but also putting his security forces on high alert.
“Russia strongly condemns these inhuman murders and is ready to provide any assistance in the investigation of these terrorist offenses,” Dmitri Peskov, Putin’s spokesman said, quoting the telegram to Hollande.
The question now is if the US, European, Middle Eastern and Russian leaders can put aside the mutual mistrust that has stymied any real cooperation in Syria.
Russia was pushing the need for more cooperation as the G20 summit got underway. "I have a feeling that the need to create an efficient, comprehensive, international coalition against IS and other terrorist groups is becoming more and more apparent," Lavrov told reporters after talks in Vienna with US Secretary of State John Kerry.
The Paris attacks will resonate particularly strongly in Russia, because the slaughter of concert goers in Paris is reminiscent of the Nord Ost siege in Moscow in 2002 when 40 Chechen separatists held 850 hostages in the Dubrokvka theatre. Russian special forces stormed the building after three days, killing all the terrorists but also 130 people civilians.
Russians were already scared before the Paris attack. Nearly half of Russians (48%) said they fear a terrorist attack or hostage-taking situation in the near future, according to a poll conducted by the independent pollster the Levada Center on October 26. Of those that fear an attack, three quarters (76%) consider terrorist group IS the greatest threat.
IS has previously called for Islamic fighters to take revenge on Russia after Putin launched an air strike campaign in Syria just over a month ago against IS militants and opposition forces fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Russia said it was beefing up its security measures on Saturday following the attacks in Paris, placing security services on high alert, urging vigilance among citizens and promising tighter transport safety measures.
Time to unite
Putin was quick to reiterate his call to form a board international coalition against terror under the auspices of the UN, “similar to the one that stood against Hitler", that he proposed during his speech to the UN general assembly on September 28.
The speech was criticised at the time as containing nothing new and written off as more Russian moaning about the arrogance of the US (although Putin never mentioned the country by name). However, the parts of the speech on the need to unite against terrorism have more force now following France’s Friday 13th attacks.
In his speech Putin had lambasted the West for its “arrogance” and “ignorance” before suggesting a grand coalition. “You want to ask the people who created this situation: ‘Do you at least understand what you’ve done?’ But I fear that the question would just hang in the air, because after all, they have not turned their back on policies based on self-certainty, a sense of superiority and impunity,” Putin said in the UN speech in a scathing critique of US foreign policy.
“It seems, however, that instead of learning from other people’s mistakes, some prefer to repeat them and continue to export revolutions, only now these are “democratic” revolutions. Just look at the situation in the Middle East and Northern Africa… Instead of democracy and progress, there is now violence, poverty, social disasters and total disregard for human rights, including even the right to life,” Putin said in the UN speech. “It is equally irresponsible to manipulate extremist groups and use them to achieve your political goals, hoping that later you’ll find a way to get rid of them or somehow eliminate them.
Putin concluded his speech with a call for putting the UN in charge of the response to all the world’s problems: “Russia is confident of the United Nations’ enormous potential, which should help us avoid a new confrontation and embrace a strategy of cooperation. Hand in hand with other nations, we will consistently work to strengthen the UN’s central, coordinating role. I am convinced that by working together, we will make the world stable and safe, and provide an enabling environment for the development of all nations and peoples.”
A world joining forces to defeat an “existential threat” is an obvious response to the Paris attacks. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who was with Lavrov and Kerry in Vienna on the day of the catastrophe, said the attacks show “the necessity of coordinating in the fight against terrorism. We have to see what concrete steps we can take to strengthen and coordinate the international action against terrorism,” Fabius said in Vienna on November 14.
Erdogan also called for closer cooperation and pushed G20 delegates on November 15 to merge competing agendas from migration to the slowing global economy, terrorism and the Syrian conflict into one clear anti-terrorism message.
“We are face to face with the concept of collective terrorism,” Erdogan said. “I believe our stance against international terrorism in the world will be reflected in a decisive, sharp response at the G-20 summit.”
Turkey was already on the frontline in the fight with terrorism before Paris. On November 15, a militant allegedly affiliated with IS blew himself up in the southeastern city of Gaziantep, injuring four police. Four IS militants, who fired at a Turkish army armoured vehicle, were shot dead by soldiers near Turkey’s border with Syria on November 14.
The US has been unhappy with the way Erdogan has tried to use the fight against IS to bolster his own domestic political agenda by linking the terror attacks to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) guerillas. Kurdish guerillas in Syria are among the most effective forces opposing IS. Obaman suggested that some of these differences had been put aside during his preliminary meetings on the eve of the G20 summit.
“We will redouble efforts with other members of the coalition to bring about a peaceful transition in Syria and to eliminate ISIL,” said Obama, adding that the US will help Turkey and Europe in the effort to reduce the flow of migrants. As for his part, Erdogan said: “There will be a strong message on fighting terrorism coming out of the summit”.
There will most likely be an increase in the military power assigned to fighting IS. Hollande has promised the response would be “ruthless” and France launched airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria on Sunday, dropping 20 bombs on the Syrian town of Rappa.
Lavrov and Kerry made a joint statement in Vienna where they were meeting on the evening of the G20 summit.
"We're witnessing the kind of medieval and modern fascism at the same time, which has no regard for life, that seeks to destroy, create chaos, disorder and fear," Kerry said, adding that the attacks "stiffen our resolve to fight back, to hold people accountable and to stand up to the rule of law". Lavrov echoed Kerry’s comments, saying: “There can be no tolerance of terrorism.” Several Americans were reportedly killed in the attacks.
The Paris attacks have already been dubbed “Europe’s 9/11” as they could be a game changer. But the mistrust between the players remains very deep and bridging it will not be easy. In Ukraine leading commentators were already warning that getting into bed with Russia would be a mistake.
“I'm against double standards. If West declares war on terrorism, fine, then don't restrain us in fighting it in #Ukraine, stand with us, arm us,’ Katya Kruk, a political scientist and the so-called “voice of Euromaidan” said in a tweet.
Polish member of the European Union Jacek Saryusz-Wolski made much the same point: “Russia is part of problem, not solution in Syria, interested in IS destabilising EU, wants concessions on Ukraine,” he said in a tweet.
A global coalition is not workable in Syria without Russia, which has the initiative at the moment after the Kremlin launched military operations there in October. However, cooperating with a country that has destabilised the east of the country and which has annexed the Crimea is going to stick in the craw of many western leaders if they can bring themselves to do it at all.