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Russia, Iran and Turkey agree to greater cooperation in Syria ahead of Sochi summit

Syria's Assad made a surprise trip to the resort town on Monday, meeting Putin after 2 years

The chiefs of general staff of Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed on Tuesday to improve coordination in the “de-escalation zone” in Syria’s Idlib province, and discussed steps to “complete the elimination of the remaining Islamic State and Nusra Front formations” in Syria, the Russian Ministry of Defence said.

Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s Chief of General Staff, met with Turkey’s General Hulusi Akar and  General Mohammad Bagheri met in Sochi ahead of a trilateral meeting on the ongoing war in Syria.

“The chiefs of general staff of Russia, Iran and Turkey have agreed on measures to enhance cooperation in the Idlib de-escalation zone. Moreover, the sides considered practical steps to eradicate the rest of ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra in Syria,” the MoD said in a statement.

“In course of the talks, the sides discussed current situation in Syria, outlined further steps to eliminate terror groups, ensure security in the de-escalation zones, and pave way for political settlement of the conflict.”

Gerasimov said the “the active phase of the military operation” was nearing completion, but some issues had yet to be addressed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin separately met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who made a surprise trip to Sochi ahead of the summit.

The Kremlin said Assad agreed to the Russian proposal for a Syrian national dialogue conference expected to be held next month.

“We still have a long way to go before we achieve a complete victory over terrorists. But as far as our joint work in fighting terrorism on the territory of Syria is concerned, this military operation is indeed wrapping up,” Putin said at the meeting, which took place on Monday but was not announced until Tuesday.

Assad last visited Russia in 2015, shortly after Moscow intervened in the Syrian civil war at his request.

He told a Russian television station, “At this stage, especially after we achieved victory over terrorists, it is in our interests to move forward with the political process.”

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Putin also spoke with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and assured them “Russia will work with Syrian leadership to prepare the groundwork” for any possible deals that could be made in Sochi this week. The three leaders are expected to meet in Sochi on Wednesday.

On Monday, the Kremlin said Putin met with senior Defence Ministry and industry officials.

Assad’s trip comes as Syrian opposition groups are due in meet in the Saudi capital on Wednesday ahead of U.N.-sponsored talks in Geneva scheduled for next week. Riad Hijab, the head of the High Negotiations Committee, an an umbrella group for some opposition parties, stepped down, saying he felt compelled to resign. A number of other HNC resignations were reported on social media.

Hijab did not give a reason for his decision but referred in the statement to attempts by foreign powers to carve up Syria into zones of influence “through side deals made without consulting the Syrian people.”

The HNC had opposed the Russia-sponsored Syrian Congress on National Dialogue which was due to be held in Sochi on November 18. Mohammad Alloush, a HNC member and a political leader of the Saudi-backed Islamist rebel group Jaysh al-Islam, said the congress would be meeting “between the regime and the regime.”

Hijab had also objected to the participation of the mainly Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in an earlier round of talks in Geneva. Turkey also opposes the inclusion of the PYD, which it sees as a threat to its stability and tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), in any talks, while Russia has been more open to Kurdish participation.

On Monday, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said Turkish the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Turkish troops exchanged fire in Idlib, where the Turkish military maintains observation posts.

Erdogan had said on Friday that Turkey must “cleanse” the mainly Kurdish Erfin canton of the PYD and YPG.

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