By Maria PANINA
Sochi (AFP) – The leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran hailed the planned US withdrawal from Syria as they met for talks Thursday on how to work more closely together in the country’s long-running conflict.
Hosting his Turkish and Iranian counterparts in the southern city of Sochi, President Vladimir Putin said the three welcomed the expected US pull-out from northeastern Syria.
It would be “a positive step that would help stabilise the situation in this region, where ultimately the legitimate government should re-establish control,” he told a joint press conference after the talks.
Russia and Iran — who both back the regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad — and rebel supporter Turkey have positioned themselves as key foreign players in Syria’s long-running war.
The United States has had troops in Syria backing Kurdish-led forces fighting the Islamic State group but President Donald Trump issued an abrupt order in December to pull out all 2,000.
The Kurdish-led fighters were on Thursday battling to expel IS jihadists from the small town of Baghouz in eastern Syria, the last bastion of their “caliphate” that once controlled large parts of the country.
Putin said Thursday’s talks were “constructive and business-like” and that “close coordination” was crucial to ensuring long-term stability in Syria.
He said the three leaders agreed to “strengthen cooperation” in the so-called Astana framework — a process initiated by Russia, Iran and Turkey that has eclipsed parallel peace talks led by the United Nations.
They also agreed to work together to put together a constitutional committee that would work to resolve Syria’s political future, Putin said, adding that another round of talks would take place in Astana in late March and early April.
Rouhani said Thursday’s talks were “very helpful and frank” and insisted on Syria’s territorial integrity, calling for a “purge of terrorists” from the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib.
He also suggested he did not believe the US was planning to withdraw from Syria.
“We have no optimism about what the Americans say… but if they do withdraw, it will be very good news.”
– ‘Important we work together’ –
At a separate meeting Thursday with Putin, Erdogan said the planned US pull-out made it more important for other foreign powers to work together in Syria.
“The US withdrawal decision is one of the most important tests ahead of us. The uncertainty over how the decision will be implemented remains. It is very very important that we work together in this new situation,” he said.
As a sign of cooperation, he said Russia and Turkey had agreed to start “joint patrols” in order to contain “radical groups” in Idlib province.
The two countries agreed last year to jointly monitor a buffer zone around Idlib and a statement from the three leaders on Thursday agreed to take “concrete steps” to further control the zone.
Erdogan also called for the removal of the Kurdish forces battling IS in northeastern Syria.
“Syria’s territorial integrity cannot be ensured and that region cannot be returned to its real owners before PYD-YPG is cleared from Manbij and the east of Euphrates,” Erdogan said.
“Kurdish-led forces are battling to expel Islamic State group fighters from the small town of Baghouz in eastern Syria, the last bastion of their “caliphate” (AFP Photo/Fadel SENNA).”
The Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have held the strategic city of Manbij and areas east of the Euphrates since pushing out IS fighters.
Turkey considers the YPG, and its political branch the Democratic Union Party (PYD), as offshoots of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Both Russia and Iran have provided military backing to Assad’s forces, while Turkey has supported rebel groups in the north who have fought with the Kurds.
Thursday’s meeting was the fourth summit between the countries’ leaders since November 2017.
It came as the United States holds a two-day conference in Warsaw devoted to security in the Middle East, with a strong emphasis on Iran.
The conference includes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several Arab powers but has drawn little interest from European powers.
Rouhani dismissed the Warsaw talks as pointless.
“We see what’s happening in Warsaw, it’s an empty result, nothing,” he said in Sochi.
© Agence France-Presse
Featured Photo: “Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) hosted Iran’s Hassan Rouhani (L) and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the southern city of Sochi for talks on Syria (AFP Photo/Handout).”