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Russia, Iran, Turkey say Syrian constitution committee ready

SUZAN FRASER and ZEYNEP BILGINSOY
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Turkey Politics

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media after Friday prayers in Istanbul, Sept. 13, 2019, shortly after former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced his resignation from Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in Ankara, Turkey. Davutoglu has also announced plans to form a new political movement.(Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — The leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran announced Monday that an agreement has been finally reached on the composition of 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 Hassan Rouhani in the Turkish capital Ankara that differences on one last committee member has been overcome, paving the way for the committee to start working as soon as possible.

"We portrayed a constructive and flexible attitude to determine constitutional committee members and rules of procedure. We made an effort for the political process to move forward. In short, hitches regarding the establishment of the committee were eliminated by our mutual efforts," Erdogan said. 

The leaders did not provide a timeframe for the committee — set to be made up of Syrian government and opposition figures — to begin its proceedings. The procedural rules still have to be worked out, Putin told reporters.

"The proceedings must begin rapidly," Putin said. "Extremist groups may try and destroy this process because they do not want a final agreement since they gain money from war."

Russia and Iran are key allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad while Turkey backs Syrian rebels seeking to oust him.

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.

"We cannot stand by and watch a new tragedy that would affect 4 million people right next to our border," Erdogan said, adding: "Such a calamitous development would not only affect our country but also all of Europe."

A joint statement issued at the end of the meeting said the three leaders underscored the need "to fully implement" an agreement reached between Turkey and Russia last year for a de-escalation zone in Idlib.

 The statement said the sides had agreed to take concrete steps to reduce violations." They expressed alarm "about the risk of further deterioration of the humanitarian situation," according to the statement.

"We all stand for Syria's territorial integrity and insist that after the problems of security and the fight against terrorists are resolved, Syria's territorial integrity will be fully restored. This concerns withdrawal of all foreign troops from Syria's territory," the statement said.

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.

While acknowledging Turkey's security needs, both Rouhani and Putin took aim at U.S. military involvement in Syria, saying its presence there was illegal and undermined Syria's territorial integrity. 

"We all stand for Syria's territorial integrity and insist that after the problems of security and the fight against terrorists are resolved, Syria's territorial integrity will be fully restored. This concerns withdrawal of all foreign troops from Syria's territory," Putin said. 

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 the cities of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour. 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.

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Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul.