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France's Hollande heads to Russia hoping for Syria breakthrough

French President Francois Hollande welcomes Russian President, Vladimir Putin prior to their meeting at the Elysee Presidential Palace on October 02, 2015 in Paris.
Thierry Chesnot | Getty Images
French President Francois Hollande welcomes Russian President, Vladimir Putin prior to their meeting at the Elysee Presidential Palace on October 02, 2015 in Paris.

France's president heads to Moscow on Thursday to try to win concessions from Russia's Vladimir Putin to fight Islamic State and press on with a political solution in Syria, but diplomats warn that major differences will make a breakthrough difficult.

President Francois Hollande will meet Putin as part of a diplomatic push for improved international cooperation against Islamic State following attacks by the militant group that killed 130 people in Paris on Nov. 13.

But having agreed with U.S President Barack Obama on Tuesday to scale up military operations against the group, French officials are playing down the prospect of achieving Hollande's initial calls for a grand coalition against IS that would include Russia and the United States.

The downing of a Russian jet by NATO ally Turkey on Tuesday followed by Moscow's renewed bombardment of Western-backed Syrian rebels appears to have put an end to such talk, leaving at best an effort to better coordinate action.

"We reached the conclusion that we had to work with Putin," said a senior French diplomat. "We have to try and get him on board with some of the conditions that we set out previously."

France has previously said it could only work closely with Russia if Moscow pressured Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop barrel-bombing civilians, limited its strikes to Islamic State and similar hardcore groups and worked on a political transition in Syria without Assad at the end.

"If we can make him move on one of those things all the better," the official said.

French officials, who say Hollande has a good working relationship with Putin, have also said they are concerned that Russia makes little effort to avoid collateral damage with its strikes in Syria, making coordination even more difficult.

So far Putin appears not to be backing down on any of Paris' preconditions and the downing of its jet - one of the most serious publicly acknowledged clashes between Russia and a NATO member for half a century - has stiffened his resolve.

Another senior diplomat said Hollande's visit aimed to test Putin's sincerity, but believed the two sides remained "too far apart" for serious coordination to happen, dismissing any talk of a joint military command.

"We're looking at ways to coordinate, avoid conflicts and ensure we don't hit the same targets," the diplomat said.

Russia's ambassador to France, Alexander Orlov, told Europe 1 radio earlier on Wednesday that Moscow was prepared to coordinate its strikes against Islamic State militants in a joint command with Western powers.

"For our part, we are prepared to go further, to plan strikes against Daesh (Islamic State) positions together and to set up a joint command with France, America and any country that wants to join this coalition," he said, noting that this included Turkey.