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Russia, Turkey and Iran agree to coordinate on Syria amid potential U.S. vacuum

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, meets with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, in Sochi, Russia, on Feb. 14, 2019. (Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Turkish Presidential Press Office/Reuters)

MOSCOW — The leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed Thursday on the need to coordinate on eventual arrangements for northeastern Syria after an expected U.S. troop withdrawal, but they remained far apart on what those plans could entail.

The talks in Russia’s Black Sea resort town of Sochi underscored the various interests at play in Syria — Russia and Iran as key backers of President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey seeking to keep close watch on Syrian Kurds seen by Ankara as a potential threat.

The three-way statement — by Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani — also showed concerns over any vacuum caused by President Trump’s decision to pull out troops that have been battling the Islamic State in Syria’s northeast.

“It is our joint view that the [U.S. withdrawal] is a positive move that will help stabilize this part of Syria, where legitimate government control should eventually be restored,” Putin said after the trio met for the latest round of Kremlin-initiated talks aimed at finding a way to end the eight-year conflict. 

The three countries, all of which have forces stationed in Syria, agreed to work on a plan for postwar Syria at a 2017 conference in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, but remain far apart on ways to bring about a final settlement.

Russia and Iran repeated their calls for Syrian government forces to take control there. Erdogan stuck to his intention to create a “safe zone,” effectively separating Turkey’s border from the Syrian Kurds. 

Russia said Turkey needed the consent of Assad to create such a zone, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters. 

Moscow, which entered the Syrian war militarily in 2015, has been cementing its role as the true arbiter of Syria’s future, and key power brokers in the region, including the United States’ Syrian Kurdish allies, are looking to the Kremlin for guidance in charting a settlement. 

Trump reversed course on his initial statement in December that U.S. troops would withdraw immediately, later saying that the exit depended on liberating the final pocket of territory controlled by the Islamic State. This week, hundreds of people poured out of the area as it became increasingly clear the militants were facing defeat.

The top U.S. commander in the Middle East said this week that the pullout will happen in a matter of weeks, although U.S. officials also want to commit to negotiating a handover agreement before that happens.

Putin said he had not seen any signs on the ground in Syria to suggest that Washington was withdrawing, adding that Trump does not always deliver on his campaign promises.

“The current domestic political situation is such that [Trump] cannot always fulfill his goals. . . . But we work on the belief that [the withdrawal] will happen,” Putin said. 

The fate of Syria’s northwest, home to the final rebel stronghold of Idlib, was also discussed at the trilateral summit. The recent entry there of groups linked to al-Qaeda has increased the possibility of an assault on the region, which is about the size of Lebanon. 

Last fall, Russia and Turkey brokered a cease-fire in Idlib, sparing the area a devastating assault by forces loyal to Assad and preventing a humanitarian disaster. 

“It was agreed to take specific steps to reduce violations in the Idlib de-escalation area,” read a joint statement issued after the talks, without providing further details. 

But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the steps aimed at clearing Idlib of “terrorist” groups — the name used by Russia to describe anti-Assad forces — did not involve military action. 

The three leaders said they agreed to hold their next round of Syria talks in Turkey in April. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Russia, Iran and Turkey reached agreement on plans for northeast Syria after a U.S. withdrawal.

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U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria is proving easier said than done

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