Monday, September 16, 2019 3:14 PM EST
By SUZAN FRASER and ZEYNEP BILGINSOY, AP
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — The leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey announced Monday that they agreed to form a committee tasked with rewriting Syria's constitution as part of a political solution to the country's civil war, now in its ninth year.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told journalists at the end of the meeting with Russia's Vladimir Putin and Iran's Hasan Rouhani in the Turkish capital Ankara that the last hitches blocking the formation of the committee have been overcome.
Russia and Iran are key allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad while Turkey backs Syrian rebels seeking to oust him.
The parties agreed on a constitutional committee — to be made up of pro-government, opposition and independent members — paving the way for speedy talks in Geneva, Putin told reporters.
Iran's Hassan Rouhani said he hoped for elections to take place in Syria in 2020 or 2021.
The leaders also agreed to de-escalate the volatile situation in Idlib — the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria — while combatting extremists and protecting civilians. A cease-fire that went into effect at the end of August has been holding despite some violations.
Idlib is dominated by the al-Qaida-linked group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Syrian forces, backed by Russia, targeted the armed group in a four-month ground and air offensive but civilians have been widely affected. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians, some already displaced from other parts of the war-torn country, have moved toward Turkey's border.
A major conflict in Idlib has raised the possibility of a mass refugee flow to Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
Erdogan has previously warned that Turkey could "open its gates" and allow Syrians already living in his country to flood Western countries if Turkey is left to shoulder the refugee burden alone.
Monday's talks were the fifth trilateral meeting among countries that stand on opposing sides of the conflict.
Erdogan repeated Turkish demands from the United States for a so-called "safe zone" in northeastern Syria along the Turkish border east of the Euphrates River where joint patrols have begun but threatened Turkey would go it alone if its establishment was delayed.
Turkey wants a buffer zone on its border that is clear of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces that Ankara considers terrorists, alleging they have ties to a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.
Ankara is also lobbying for a plan to resettle displaced Syrians in Turkey-controlled zones across northern Syria and Erdogan suggested that it could be expanded to Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. Rouhani called for the withdrawal of American troops and Syria's territorial integrity, arguing that Syrians should be able to go back to their own homes rather than move to safe zone settlements.
Despite divergent interests in Syria, Erdogan and Putin have been building closer ties, having met seven times in 2019 alone. Russia has delivered two batteries of the S-400 surface to air missile systems to Turkey and the two countries are cooperating on energy deals.
Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul.