David Cameron and Vladimir Putin have consented to cooperate in the battle against Islamic State (Isis), Downing Street has said. The Prime Minister expressed this to the Russian president by phone while briefing him about Britain’s military actions in Syria.
It followed last week’s vote in the House of Commons, where a majority of MPs supported extending RAF bombing missions against ISIS across the border from Iraq.
Cameron clarified Britain’s persisted opposition to the involvement of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad – an ally of Moscow – in almost any postwar regime in Damascus, telling Putin the country needed “a government that all the Syrian people can support”.
The prime minister also fended off a request from the Russian president that he help offer British expertise in investigating how a Russian military plane was shot down by the Turkish army in November.
The plane’s fall and the passing of a Russian military pilot has prompted a breakdown in Russian-Turkish relations, and Putin seemed to attempt to enroll British inclusion in the examination as an impartial eyewitness.
With Turkey, an important ally of Britain, Cameron is unlikely to help, because it could end up with the United Kingdom having to assess whether the Turks had acted incorrectly. The Russians are generally understood to want UK’s help in interpreting data within the black box of the plane.
The Russian pilot was shot dead as he parachuted the aircraft into Syria, while another serviceman died on a search-and-rescue mission launched to retrieve him and a second crewman. The russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, delivered the black box to the Kremlin on Friday, but was advised by Putin not to allow it to be opened until overseas experts were on hand to examine it in the hope they may confirm Moscow’s description of events.
A British government statement said the two sides agreed their countries should work together in the fight against Isis, but Downing Street gave few concrete examples of how this cooperation will be put into practice. Britain is still critical of the way in which Russian air campaign is not heading against Isis but against Syrian rebel forces.
Russia continues to insist outside forces cannot decide on the leadership of Syria, and it is for the Syrian people to decide. The issue of the role of Assad in a transitional government is the biggest problem between Russia and Iran on the one hand and the West on the other.