Putin preparing to strike Islamic State ‘with or without US’

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, determined to strengthen his country’s only military outpost in the Middle East, is preparing to launch unilateral airstrikes against Islamic State from inside Syria if the US rejects his proposal to join forces, two people familiar with the matter said.

Mr Putin’s preferred course of action, though, is for the US and its allies to agree to coordinate their campaign against IS with Russia, Iran and the Syrian army, which the Obama administration has so far resisted, according to a person close to the Kremlin and an adviser to the Defence Ministry in Moscow.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow for talks with Mr Putin on Monday, followed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday.

Putin’s proposal, which Russia has communicated to the US, calls for a “parallel track” of joint military action accompanied by a political transition away from Dr Assad, a key US demand, according to a third person. The initiative will be the centrepiece of Mr Putin’s one-day trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, which may include talks with US President Barack Obama.

“Russia is hoping common sense will prevail and Obama takes Putin’s outstretched hand,” said Elena Suponina, a senior Middle East analyst at the Institute of Strategic Studies, which advises the Kremlin. “But Putin will act anyway if this doesn’t happen.”Putin’s military buildup in Syria in recent weeks has alarmed US officials, coming after his annexation of Crimea and support for the insurgency in Ukraine, which prompted US and European Union sanctions that have helped push Russia’s economy into recession.

The US is willing to discuss coordinating strikes to avoid hostile incidents with Russian planes, but Washington and its allies haven’t received a “concrete” proposal from Moscow and won’t include Dr Assad’s forces in the effort, an official in Washington said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

European Union leaders meeting in Brussels also seemed to shift on the question of Dr Assad’s fate. Fighting in Syria has killed at least 250,000 people and provoked hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in Europe.

“We will have to talk with many actors,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said early on Thursday after a summit of the 28-nation bloc. “Assad will be part of that, but also others like the United States and Russia as well as important regional partners like Iran or Saudi Arabia.”

“We must start right away a process of political transformation while stating clearly that Assad can’t stay on at the end of the process,” French President Francois Hollande said after the summit, adding that  the EU’s meeting hadn’t gone into details of what a political solution could look like.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in an interview with the newspaper Le Figaro published Tuesday that “pillars of the army and the regime” must be part of a transitional Syrian government to prevent the collapse of the country.