A three nation summit in Ankara of Turkey, Russia and Iran vowed to redouble efforts behind the Moscow-led Astana talks process to “achieve a lasting ceasefire in Syria” amid fears of a renewed offensive on rebel-held parts of the country.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted the trilateral talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin over two days in the Turkish capital.
The troika of leaders declared there was “no alternative to the Syrian National Dialogue Congress”, the Russian-sponsored peace effort widely seen as a rival to the UN's Geneva process. In a joint statement, the group said the so-called Astana initiative "had been the only effective international initiative that had helped reduce violence across Syria and had contributed to peace and stability in Syria".
The talks came just hours after US President Donald Trump signalled an exit soon from Syria, saying he wanted to "bring our troops back home".
With the US seeking it to withdrawn its forces from the conflict, the three countries are looking to the next stage of fighting. The fate of Idlib, Syria's last rebel stronghold, had been expected to provide the toughest part of the summit agenda. Experts had warned an outbreak of fighting there could lead to co-operation between the three countries breaking down.
But after meeting Mr Putin on Tuesday, the Turkish president said they would continue their co-operation "focusing on our common interests" in Syria.
Idlib's civilian infrastructure is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), which is led by Syria's former Al Qaeda affiliate.
The Turkish, Russian and Iranian presidents have sponsored Syria peace talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana, and have set up de-escalation zones aimed at reducing the fighting. However, Turkey's offensive in the northern region of Afrin and bombing of rebel areas by the Assad regime and Russia is said to have rendered those zones meaningless.
More than half a million people are thoughts to have been killed since the war began following anti-government protests in 2011, while millions have been internally displaced or forced to flee.
Turkey hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, and Ankara is keen to avoid a further influx ahead of 2019 elections next year and is also seeking to return some refugees to safe zones inside Syria.
Speaking after the talks, Mr Erdogan said that Syria's territorial integrity depended on maintaining distance from all terrorist organisations, a reference to U.S. support for a Syrian Kurdish militia Ankara considers an enemy.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called for Afrin to be handed over to Syrian regime, following its capture from the Kurdish YPG militia by Turkish-backed rebels earlier this year.
Mr Erdogan claimed that the operation, dubbed ‘Olive Branch’, had enabled Syrian refugees to return home. He also blasted the EU, claiming Turkey had yet to receive any of the $3 billion dollars promised as part of a deal to stem the flow of refugees into Europe in 2016. He said Turkey had “received nothing at all”.
Mr Rouhani also demanded the independence of Syria be respected, claiming the US had supported jihadist groups such as ISIL. "Some countries, including America, support terrorist groups like ISIL in Syria, which serve these countries' interests... Iran believes the Syrian crisis has no military solution and safeguarding the independence of Syria is a priority for Tehran.”
The troika confirmed they would meet again for further talks, hosted by Iran. Russia and Iran have provided crucial military and financial support to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's forces, while Turkey has backed the rebels seeking to overthrow him.
In a statement released on Wednesday, the White House reaffirmed "its commitment to eliminating the small ISIL presence in Syria".