GWEN IFILL: We return now to the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria.
As we reported, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian military forces to cooperate with the French military, as both countries bombed targets in Syria today. But what are the prospects of cooperating with Russia to end the Syrian conflict?
We get two views.
Evelyn Farkas was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia and Eurasia from 2012 to earlier this year. And Vali Nasr is the dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Vali Nasr, let's talk about timing. Why the stepped-up action by Russia now?
VALI NASR, Johns Hopkins University: Well, they had the attack on their plane in Sinai and the attack in Paris. It actually gives them an opportunity to argue that ISIS should be the top priority for the international community in Syria.
Putin has been arguing this all along. He doesn't have many people actually taking this at face value. Now he sees an opportunity, given what's happened in Paris, to align European positions with himself. So he's stepping up pressure.
GWEN IFILL: But Putin didn't acknowledge until today that there was even terrorism involved in the shoot-down or whatever happened to the Metrojet plane over the Sinai. Is he to be trusted on this?
VALI NASR: Well, what we can see is that Paris has been a game-changer.
It has shifted the focus in Europe and potentially the United States on ISIS. This actually gives Russia an opportunity to align its Syria policy with that of the West, so let's say to find a common ground.
So it makes sense for him, ahead of meeting with President Hollande, to say, we're both facing the same problem. This happened to me in Sinai. This has happened to you in Paris. Let's coordinate and cooperate on this.
GWEN IFILL: So, Evelyn Farkas, we have common interests, theoretically, and, therefore, strange bedfellows can get together. Is this a brand-new day when it comes to the U.S.-Russia-France relationship?
EVELYN FARKAS, Former Defense Department Official: Sadly, Gwen, I don't think so.
I think it is an opportunity for the Russians to acknowledge that we have a shared foe, if we will, in ISIS, Da'esh, ISIL, whatever you want to call it. The Russians have been saying that rhetorically for quite some time. In fact, they have been talking about combating terrorism with us for years now.
But I think the proof will really be in what they hit and not just tonight, but moving into the weeks and the next couple of days.
GWEN IFILL: What should be the United States be doing with this, what feels not quite like an olive branch but at least a reach-out from Russia?
EVELYN FARKAS: I think we should try. We should always try to cooperate with Russia, but I'm skeptical, because essentially our objectives in Syria and actually beyond Syria are not aligned with Russia's
And until they're aligned, until one side or other or both sides can compromise, I think there will be limits to any kind of cooperation we can have with Russia.
GWEN IFILL: In fact, Vali Nasr, Vladimir Putin has accused the U.S. in the past of playing a double game when it comes to the Middle East. What's changed?
VALI NASR: Well, nothing has changed, in the sense that our position, as Evelyn says, is very different from Russia's, not only in the Middle East, but beyond.
But there is a lot of pressure now on European governments and also on the U.S. government to find a way to address the ISIS problem. We're seeing the receding of the importance of Assad in resolution of the — the immediate resolution of the Syria crisis and addressing U.S. and Europe's security problems compared to ISIS.
So, in the military arena, we have one set of problems actually working with the Russians, in that we don't know what they're hitting, what they will do. But then there is the diplomatic front in Vienna. And I think Putin is counting on the fact that the Europeans now feel pressure that this war has to end more quickly or we should get to a cease-fire.
That is not going to happen by insisting on Assad going. It will happen by creating some common ground around ISIS.
GWEN IFILL: Have we reached a point where any road to peace or at least road to cooperation has to run through Moscow?
VALI NASR: Well, I think that's what they want. They want to position themselves in there. They're in Syria.
They can provide underground military operations, which the U.S. and the Europeans don't want to do right now, but also getting a common language on ISIS helps the Russians to isolate Turks and Saudi Arabia, which still are insisting that the problem is Assad, not ISIS.
A lot of this is basically positioning. And not much may happen in the actual fighting, but I think Putin finds a lot more room to argue that I told you so two years ago, this is about terrorism, you wouldn't believe me, it's not about Assad, and if you want this thing to go away, we should all focus on ISIS.
GWEN IFILL: Evelyn Farkas, do you agree that we have now moved past the argument about Assad and that, even though the U.S. and France are on one side and that Russia is on the other side, that there has to be some other pathway?
EVELYN FARKAS: I mean, I don't think that we're aligned with Russia yet. We really have a disagreement, a fundamental disagreement on Assad.
So until that bridge is — until that gap is bridged, which will happen through diplomacy, we won't see real change. We can bomb ISIL, Da'esh, et cetera. The Russians can bomb them. But it's still not going to change the ultimate outcome.
And the other thing is that, right now, Russia wants a resolution, because, right now, they're probably at the peak of their military engagement. I don't know, quite frankly, how much longer they can sustain this.
GWEN IFILL: It wasn't long ago that we were talking about a proxy war in Syria with the U.S. on one side, Russia on the other, and the potential, I don't know, for us shooting each other out of the sky and the whole thing escalating. Has that now gone away if we sit down at the same table?
VALI NASR: No, I mean, on the military arena, there are certain things have to happen about deconflicting and then getting our at least targets aligned.
I think it's in Vienna that we might see the greatest amount of movement. Namely, if the Europeans and the Americans come with an attitude of let us try to find a compromise around when will Assad go, how can we bring a certain number of the opposition forces into alignment with the Syrian government to create a united front to fight ISIS, there might be movement there.
I think what Russia would like is to move the U.S. and European positions closer to themselves and break them off from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which are still, if you want to call it, are holding to the line that this is about Assad, Assad must go before we do anything else.
GWEN IFILL: But at what price? This is not the only agreement that the U.S. and Russia have.
EVELYN FARKAS: Well, that's what I was going to say.
I think he's also trying to very cleverly create a divide between us and our European allies. And that gets to a whole context that's not even being addressed here, which is what's happening in Europe, and Ukraine-Russia, relations, et cetera.
So I think that he has cleverly — he used the word treat them as allies to his military folks when he was instructing them about engaging with the French navy. Treat them as allies. Well, the French actually have allies. They have — they're part of a 28-member alliance called NATO. They're part of the E.U. Russia is not their ally.
I think that's a little bit of an exuberant sort of exaggeration to call the French the Russian allies. But I think this is Putin being very clever and he's trying to create some distance and pull off the French towards himself.
GWEN IFILL: And yet, next week, we're going to see Francois Hollande, who you say is not an ally of Vladimir Putin and of Russia, going to Moscow to meet, also coming to the U.S. to meet with President Obama, trying to straddle that difference.
VALI NASR: Well, I think there is to be military and intelligence cooperation discussions.
But beyond that, I think the key question is Europe — is this, is that you can't really fight ISIS until you end this war, so how are you going to end this war? And I think the proposal Putin is giving everybody is that you're not going to fight — you're not going to get rid of Assad anymore, because I'm protecting him sitting here. And the only way this war is going to end is if we arrive at a compromise.
So I think he's going to try to persuade President Hollande to agree to a formula, that then President Hollande when he meets with President Obama will try to sell it to Washington. And if they're successful, then that becomes the position in Vienna around which there might be a compromise.
GWEN IFILL: Does that sound reassuring to — reassuring to you?
EVELYN FARKAS: That sounds not reassuring, not reassuring, but it sounds reasonable. It sounds like the course that he would take. And I can't say whether we would compromise or not.
GWEN IFILL: But is that worth the paper it's written on, is the question.
EVELYN FARKAS: Well, in terms of the Russians, I think you have to be really careful.
And, as I said, you have to watch what they're hitting, what they're not hitting and really test them, because, for a long time, they have been talking about cooperating with us, but we have never really seen it in action.
GWEN IFILL: Evelyn Farkas, Vali Nasr, thank you both very much.
VALI NASR: Thank you.