Rouhani, Putin and Erdogan
Rouhani, Putin and ErdoganReuters

The leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran on Thursday hailed the planned US withdrawal from Syria as they met for talks on how to work more closely together in the country's long-running conflict, AFP reported.

Hosting his Turkish and Iranian counterparts, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani, in the southern city of Sochi, President Vladimir Putin said the three welcomed the expected US pull-out from northeastern Syria.

It would be "a positive step that would help stabilize the situation in this region, where ultimately the legitimate government should re-establish control," he was quoted as having told a joint press conference after the talks.

Russia and Iran -- who both back the regime of Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad -- and rebel supporter Turkey have positioned themselves as key foreign players in Syria's long-running war.

In December, US President Donald Trump unexpectedly announced that he was immediately withdrawing troops from Syria. Trump had initially called for a 30-day timeframe to complete the pullout, but after meeting with South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, Trump agreed to delay completion of the withdrawal.

Earlier this week, the top US commander overseeing American forces in the Middle East said the United States is likely just weeks away from starting the withdrawal of ground troops from Syria.

The United States has had troops in Syria backing Kurdish-led forces fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) group. In announcing the withdrawal from Syria, Trump cited the defeat of ISIS, which overran large swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014, proclaiming a "caliphate" in land it controlled.

The Kurdish-led fighters were on Thursday battling to expel ISIS jihadists from the small town of Baghouz in eastern Syria, the last bastion of their "caliphate" that once controlled large parts of the country.

Putin said Thursday's talks were "constructive and business-like" and that "close coordination" was crucial to ensuring long-term stability in Syria.

He said the three leaders agreed to "strengthen cooperation" in the so-called Astana framework -- a process initiated by Russia, Iran and Turkey that has eclipsed parallel peace talks led by the United Nations.

They also agreed to work together to put together a constitutional committee that would work to resolve Syria's political future, Putin said, adding that another round of talks would take place in Astana in late March and early April.

Rouhani said Thursday's talks were "very helpful and frank" and insisted on Syria's territorial integrity, calling for a "purge of terrorists" from the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib.

He also suggested he did not believe the US was planning to withdraw from Syria.

"We have no optimism about what the Americans say... but if they do withdraw, it will be very good news," said Rouhani, according to AFP.

Erdogan, meanwhile, called for the removal of the Kurdish forces battling ISIS in northeastern Syria.

"Syria's territorial integrity cannot be ensured and that region cannot be returned to its real owners before PYD-YPG is cleared from Manbij and the east of Euphrates," Erdogan said.

The US’s main ally on the ground fighting ISIS in Syria, the Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), have held emergency talks with Moscow and Damascus over fears that Turkey will use the US withdrawal to launch on offensive.

The Syrian Democratic Forces are led by led by the People's Protection Units (YPG), a mostly Kurdish militia. The US makes a distinction between the YPG and the PKK, but Turkey does not and has more than once expressed its outrage over the American support for YPG, which it views as a terrorist organization.