President Barack Obama defended Turkey after the NATO-member country shot down a Russian warplane early Tuesday near the Turkish-Syrian border, warning Russia’s Vladimir Putin against retaliation.
“Turkey like every country has a right to defend its territory and its airspace,” Obama said during a press conference with French President François Hollande at the White House. “I think it’s very important right now for us to make sure that both the Russians and the Turks are talking to each other to find out exactly what happened, and to take measures to discourage any kind of escalation.”
“I do think that this points to an ongoing problem with the Russian operations,” Obama said. “They are operating very close to a Turkish border and they are going after moderate opposition that are supported by not only Turkey but a wide range of countries,” he said. “And if Russia is directing its energies toward … ISIL, some of those conflicts or potentials for mistakes or escalation are less likely to occur.”
“My top priority is going to be to ensure that this does not escalate,” Obama said.
The president’s comments came during a joint appearance intended to show French-American solidarity in the wake of the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris, but while Hollande struck a decidedly martial tone in his prepared remarks, detailing the French military response to the Islamic State, or ISIS, the terror group that has seized parts of northern Syria and western Iraq, Obama focused on the U.S. response to the refugee crisis created by the Middle East conflict.
The U.S. president pushed back against critics who have questioned White House plans to expedite and expand plans to resettle thousands of migrants fleeing the Syrian civil war.
“What happened in Paris is truly horrific. I understand that people worry that something similar could happen here,” the president said. But he warned against an overreaction to terror threats. “Even as we are vigilant, we cannot and we will not succumb to fear,” he said.
“Another part of being vigilant … is upholding the rights and freedoms that define our two great republics. That includes freedom of religion. That includes equality before the law. There have been times in our history in moments of fear, when we have failed to uphold our highest ideals. And it has been to our lasting regret.”
Republicans on the 2016 presidential campaign trail and lawmakers from both parties on Capitol Hill have called for Obama to “hit the pause button” on his Syrian refugee plan amid questions on whether any of the attackers in Paris posed as refugees to gain entry to France.
The downing of the Russian warplane earlier in the day prompted an emergency meeting of NATO countries in Brussels after Russian President Vladimir Putin called the incident a “stab in the back that will have serious consequences for Russia’s relationship with Turkey.”