Russia, Turkey, Iran hold talks on Syria cooperation
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Russia, Turkey, Iran hold talks on Syria cooperation

Washington preparing to withdraw troops

Russian President Vladimir Putin is hosting his Iranian and Turkish counterparts.

The leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran met for talks Thursday on how to work more closely together in Syria as Washington prepares to withdraw its troops from the war-torn country.

President Vladimir Putin hosted Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran's Hassan Rouhani for the talks in the southern city of Sochi.

Russia and Iran - who both back the regime of President Bashar al-Assad - and rebel supporter Turkey have positioned themselves as the key foreign players in Syria's long-running war.

The eight-year conflict has left more than 360,000 dead.

Meeting with Erdogan ahead of the summit, Putin said he was confident the talks would give a "new impulse" to efforts to resolve the conflict. The US withdrawal decision is one of the most important tests ahead of us

"We have done a lot together, we have come a long way," Putin said.

The talks came as Kurdish-led forces battled to expel Islamic State group fighters from the small town of Baghouz in eastern Syria, the last bastion of their "caliphate" that once controlled large parts of the country.

A US-led international coalition is backing the offensive but President Donald Trump has said Washington plans to pull all of its troops out of Syria. 

At Thursday's meeting 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, a northwestern region of Syria still under rebel control. 

He said there had been a "military agreement" on the joint patrols but provided no further details.

Erdogan also called for the removal of the Kurdish forces battling IS in northeastern Syria.

Rouhani hails US withdrawal

"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.

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).

In his meeting with Putin ahead of the talks, Rouhani called on Moscow to "coordinate more on efforts aimed at fighting terrorism" in Syria.

Before leaving for Sochi, Rouhani called the US withdrawal from Syria "good news". 

"But we can never trust the Americans' words, promises and commitment," he said at Tehran's Mehrabad airport. "The Damascus government must be put in control of all of Syria's territories." 

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. 

The three countries have also launched the Astana peace process, which has eclipsed parallel talks led by the United Nations without coming up with a definitive solution to Syria's conflict.

Thursday's meeting is the fourth summit between the countries' leaders since November 2017.  

It comes 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.

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