Moscow, Ankara and Tehran see the planned United States withdrawal from Syria as a positive step, leaders of the three countries said after a summit in Russia about the Syrian crisis.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of the Syrian government’s closest allies, hosted the summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Thursday to discuss the future of Syria with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and their Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani.
At a press briefing following the meeting, Putin said that the three leaders agreed that the US pullout from northeastern Syria “would be a positive step that would help stabilize the situation in this region, where ultimately the legitimate government should re-establish control”.
Putin said US President Donald Trump was trying to fulfil election campaign promises by ordering the troop withdrawal, but that he was not able to because of what Putin described as internal political issues.
Erdogan said that there is no clear timeline for the US troop withdrawal, adding that Trump’s own team disagrees with the US president over the planned pullout.
The Turkish leader also said that coordination between Russia, Iran and Turkey during the US withdrawal was important to his government. He said that hopes for a political resolution to the conflict in Syria have never been stronger.
Rouhani said the presence of the US in the Middle East harmed countries in the region and called on Washington to fully withdraw its troops from the region.
In December, the US president ordered the withdrawal of all US forces in Syria, which are believed to number around 2,000.
Trump said the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) had been completely defeated and that the US troops could, therefore, come home. In January the US announced withdrawal had begun, but so far only involved US vehicles leaving Syria.
After Thursday’s summit, Putin told Turkey and Iran he wanted to devise a joint plan to wipe out what he called “a hotbed of terrorists” in Syria’s Idlib region, an idea Moscow has so far tried and failed to sell to Ankara.
“We should not put up with the presence of terrorist groups in Idlib,” Putin told Erdogan and Rouhani.
“That’s why I propose we consider practical concrete steps that Russia, Turkey and Iran can take to completely destroy this hotbed of terrorists.”
Putin’s spokesman told Russian news agencies that no new military operation against Idlib had been agreed on.
Turkey, which backs moderate Syrian rebels, and Russia, the Syrian government’s principal foreign ally, agreed in September to create a demilitarised zone in Idlib, the last stronghold of Syrian rebels, which would be evacuated of all heavy weapons and hardline combatants.
Ankara pledged to disarm and remove the Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) armed group that dominates and continues to expand its reach in the region.
In return, the Russian-backed Syrian government said it would hold off launching a major military operation to wipe out HTS, once affiliated with al-Qaeda.
All three countries have forces on the ground in Syria where they have coordinated their efforts despite sometimes differing priorities and interests.
Ankara is concerned about potential refugee flows from Idlib in the event of a military operation, and wants to retain its influence in the region on its border.
At the summit, the three leaders also expressed their support for the territorial integrity of Syria.
“The presidents expressed their determination to stand against separatist agendas aimed at undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as the national security of neighbouring countries,” read a joint statement released following the trilateral summit.