U.N. mediator warns of ‘violent, worrying, dangerous’ moment in Syria

United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura speaks to attendees after a session of the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The U.N. Syria peace mediator warned on Wednesday that a recent increase in violence has created one of the most dangerous moments in years of civil war there, as the government bombards rebel areas and foreign powers further intervene.

“I have been now four years (as) special envoy, this is a violent and worrying and dangerous a moment as any that I’ve seen in my time,” Staffan de Mistura told the United Nations Security Council.

Last week was one of the bloodiest in the nearly seven-year-old conflict as Syrian government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, bombarded two of the last major rebel areas: Eastern Ghouta and the northwestern province of Idlib.

The 15-member Security Council is currently negotiating a possible resolution, drafted by Kuwait and Sweden, that would demand a 30-day ceasefire in Syria to allow the delivery of aid and the evacuation of sick and wounded.

The multi-sided conflict is also raging elsewhere, with Turkey waging an offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces in the Afrin region of northwestern Syria, while on Saturday, Syrian government anti-aircraft fire downed an Israeli warplane returning from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.

“What we are seeing in Syria today not only imperils the de-escalation arrangements and regional stability, it also undermines the efforts for a political solution. Yet we will not be deterred from pursuing the Geneva process, which is the only sustainable path toward a political solution,” De Mistura said.

The U.N.-led Geneva process to try and broker an end to the conflict has been making little or no progress. Last year Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed “de-escalation” zones to ease hostilities in western Syria where they wield influence.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the Security Council that Russia was supposed to guarantee adherence to the de-escalation zones and the removal of all chemical weapons from its ally Syria.

“Instead we to see the Assad regime continue to bomb, starve and yes, gas, civilians,” Haley said, referring to President Bashar al-Assad’s government. “Russia can push the regime to commit to seeking a real peace in Syria … now is the time for Russia to use that leverage.”

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia pushed back on Haley’s remarks, saying the Syrian political process should be free from “external pressure.” He also called on the United States to “exert their influence” on Syrian opposition fighters to ensure they cease hostilities.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Trump tells Israel peace means compromise; U.S. envoy under fire

An Israeli flag is seen near the Dome of the Rock, located in Jerusalem's Old City on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount December 6, 2017.

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump told Israel on Friday that it too would need to make “significant compromises” for peace with the Palestinians, even as they accused one of his Middle East envoys of bogging down diplomacy with what they see as pro-Israel bias.

The Palestinians were outraged by Trump’s Dec. 6 recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, a move overturning decades of U.S. reticence on the city’s status, and say they are looking at additional world powers as potential mediators.

In an interview with an Israeli newspaper that was excerpted ahead of its full publication on Sunday, Trump described his Jerusalem move as a “high point” of his first year in office.

The language of Trump’s announcement did not rule out a presence in Jerusalem for the Palestinians, who want the eastern part of the city – captured by Israel in a 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally – as their own capital.

“I wanted to make clear that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Regarding specific borders, I will grant my support to what the two sides agree between themselves,” he told the conservative Israel Hayom daily, in remarks published in Hebrew.

“I think that both sides will have to make significant compromises in order for achieving a peace deal to be possible,” Trump added, without elaborating.

The interview coincided with fresh strains between the Palestinians and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, following the killing by a Palestinian of a Jewish settler.

After the settler was stabbed to death on Monday, Friedman tweeted that he had previously donated an ambulance to the slain man’s community and that he was praying for the next-of-kin, adding: “Palestinian ‘leaders’ have praised the killer.”

That drew a rebuke from the Palestinian administration.

“The American ambassador’s statements make us wonder about his relationship with the occupation,” Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas, said in a statement. “Is he representing America or Israel?”

“Friedman’s recommendations and advice, which do not aim to achieve a just peace on the basis of international legitimacy, are what led to this crisis in American-Palestinian relations,” Abu Rdainah said.

Friedman, among the top Trump advisers who promoted the Jerusalem move, is a former contributor to settler causes.

In addition to East Jerusalem, Palestinians want the occupied West Bank for a future state and see Israel’s Jewish settlements there as a major obstacle. Israel disputes this.

Most world powers deem the settlements illegal, but the Trump administration has taken a softer tack.

A liberal Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, published a column criticizing Friedman’s stance and dubbing the settlement he had supported as “a mountain of curses” – a play on its Hebrew name, Har Bracha, which means “Mount Blessing”.

The ambassador took the unusual step of firing back at the daily in another tweet on Friday: “Four young children are sitting shiva (Jewish mourning rite) for their murdered father …. Have they (Haaretz) no decency?”

Haaretz’s publisher, Amos Shocken, responded over the platform with a critique that echoed Palestinian complaints.

“As long as the policy of Israel that your Government and yourself support is obstructing (the) peace process … there will be more Shivas,” Shocken tweeted.

(Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by William Maclean)

Netanyahu visits Golan Heights, near Syrian border, and cautions Israel’s enemies

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during an event marking the International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the breakthrough the Nazi Siege of Leningrad in the World War II, at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow, Russia January 29, 2018.

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a rare visit to the occupied Golan Heights on Tuesday, peering across the nearby border into Syria and warning Israel’s enemies not to “test” its resolve.

Netanyahu was accompanied to a hilltop observation point, some three kilometers (two miles) from a 1974 ceasefire line, by his security cabinet. He has been cautioning against any attempt by Iran to deepen its military foothold in Syria or construct missile factories in neighboring Lebanon.

“We seek peace but are prepared for any scenario and I wouldn’t suggest to anyone that they test us,” Netanyahu said in broadcast remarks.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller)

Trump threatens to pull aid to Palestinians if they don’t pursue peace

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 25, 2018

By Steve Holland and Yara Bayoumy

DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump threatened on Thursday to withhold aid to the Palestinians if they did not pursue peace with Israel, saying they had snubbed the United States by not meeting Vice President Mike Pence during a recent visit.

Trump, speaking after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the World Economic Forum, said he wanted peace. However, his remarks could further frustrate the aim of reviving long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Palestinians shunned Pence’s visit to the region this month after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and vowed to begin moving the U.S. embassy to the city, whose status is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Trump’s endorsement in December of Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its capital drew universal condemnation from Arab leaders and criticism around the world. It also broke with decades of U.S. policy that the city’s status must be decided in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

“When they disrespected us a week ago by not allowing our great vice president to see them, and we give them hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and support, tremendous numbers, numbers that nobody understands — that money is on the table and that money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace,” Trump said.

The United States said this month it would withhold $65 million of $125 million it had planned to send to the U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees. The UNRWA agency is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from U.N. states and the United states is the largest contributor.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the United States had taken itself “off the table” as a peace mediator since it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“Palestinian rights are not up to any bargain and Jerusalem is not for sale. The United States can’t have any role unless it retreats its decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah told Reuters by phone from Jordan.

Abbas has called Trump’s Jerusalem declaration a “slap in the face” and has rejected Washington as an honest broker in any future talks with Israel. Abbas left for an overseas visit before Pence arrived.

Abbas has said he would only accept a broad, internationally backed panel to broker any peace talks with Israel. The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley also criticized Abbas.

Israel’s government regards Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the country, although that is not recognized internationally. Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Speaking in Davos, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said only the United States could broker a peace deal.

“I think there’s no substitute for the United States. As the honest broker, as a facilitator, there’s no other international body that would do it,” Netanyahu said.

Trump said Palestinians had to come to the negotiating table.

“Because I can tell you that Israel does want to make peace and they’re going to have to want to make peace too or we’re going to have nothing to do with them any longer,” Trump said.

Trump said his administration had a peace proposal in the works that was a “great proposal for Palestinians” which covers “a lot of the things that were over the years discussed or agreed on”, without providing specifics.

Trump said his declaration on Jerusalem took it off the negotiating table “and Israel will pay for that”, adding “they’ll do something that will be a very good thing” without elaborating.

Earlier at the World Economic Forum, Jordanian King Abdullah said Jerusalem had to be part of a comprehensive solution.

He said Trump’s decision had created a backlash, frustrating Palestinians who felt there was no honest broker.

But he added: “I’d like to reserve judgment because we’re still waiting for the Americans to come out with their plan.”

King Abdullah’s Hashemite dynasty is the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, making Jordan particularly sensitive to any changes of status there.

The last talks collapsed in 2014, partly due to Israel’s opposition to an attempted unity pact between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, and because of Israeli settlement building on occupied land that Palestinians seek for a state, among other factors.

Palestinians want the West Bank for a future state, along with East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Most countries consider as illegal the Israeli settlements built in the territory which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Israel denies its settlements are illegal and says their future should be determined in peace talks.

The United States has said it would support a two-state solution if the Israelis and Palestinians agreed to it.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in RAMALLAH, Ari Rabinovitch in JERUSALEM, Michelle Nichols at the UNITED NATIONS and Noah Barkin and Dmitry Zhdannikov in DAVOS; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Mark Bendeich)

Japan faces greatest danger since World War due to North Korea

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends Universal Health Coverage Forum 2017 in Tokyo, Japan December 14, 2017.

TOKYO (Reuters) – The security situation facing Japan is the most perilous since World War Two because of North Korea’s “unacceptable” provocations, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Thursday and he vowed to bolster defenses to protect the Japanese people.

Tension in the region has been rising, particularly since North Korea conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test in September, and then in November, said it had successfully tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach all of the U.S. mainland.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that the security environment surrounding Japan is at its severest since World War Two. I will protect the people’s lives and peaceful living in any situation,” Abe told a New Year news conference.

Abe said Japan would take new steps to strengthen its defense posture but he did not go to specifics.

The government approved a record military budget last month, with defense outlays due to rise for a sixth year, increasing by 1.3 percent to 5.19 trillion yen ($46 billion), with the biggest item 137 billion yen in reinforcing defenses against North Korean ballistic missiles.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said this week the United States was hearing reports that North Korea might be preparing to fire another missile, and she warned it not to.

“It is absolutely unacceptable that North Korea is trampling the strong desire of Japan and the rest of the international community for peaceful resolutions and continuing with its provocative behavior,” Abe said.

Abe has said he wants to amend Japan’s pacifist constitution with the aim of loosening constraints on the military, although the public is divided over changes to the charter imposed after Japan’s World War Two defeat.

War-renouncing Article 9 of the constitution, if read literally, bans the existence of standing armed forces, but has long been interpreted to allow a military for exclusively defensive purposes.

Abe said he wanted more debate on the issue.

“I would like this to be a year in which public debate over a constitutional revision will be deepened further,” he said.

Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition retained its two-thirds “super majority” in parliament’s lower house in an Oct. 22 election, re-energizing his push to revise the constitution.

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim, Robert Birsel)

Turkey’s Erdogan calls Syria’s Assad a terrorist, says impossible to continue with him

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference with Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi (not pictured) at Carthage Palace in Tunis, Tunisia, December 27, 2017.

TUNIS (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a terrorist and said it was impossible for Syrian peace efforts to continue with him.

Syria’s foreign ministry quickly responded by accusing Erdogan of himself supporting terrorist groups fighting Assad in Syria’s civil war.

Turkey has demanded the removal of Assad from power and backed rebels fighting to overthrow him, but it has toned down its demands since it started working with Assad’s allies Russia and Iran for a political resolution.

“Assad is definitely a terrorist who has carried out state terrorism,” Erdogan told a televised news conference with his Tunisian counterpart Beji Caid Essebsi in Tunis.

“It is impossible to continue with Assad. How can we embrace the future with a Syrian president who has killed close to a million of his citizens?” he said, in some of his harshest comments for weeks.

Though Turkey has long demanded Assad’s removal, it is now more focused in Syria on the threat from Islamist militants and Kurdish fighters it considers allies of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who it says have formed a “terror corridor” on its southern border.

Turkey says the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara views as an extension of the outlawed PKK which has fought an insurgency in southeast Turkey since the 1980s, cannot be invited to Syrian peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana.

The YPG is the main element in a force that Washington has assisted with training, weapons, air support and help from ground advisers in the battle against Islamic State. That U.S. support has angered Ankara, a NATO ally of Washington.

Despite its differences with Russia and Iran, Turkey has worked with the two powers in the search for a political solution in Syria.

Ankara, Moscow and Tehran also brokered a deal to set up and monitor a “de-escalation zone” to reduce fighting between insurgents and Syrian government forces in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern Idlib province.

“We can’t say (Assad) will handle this. It is impossible for Turkey to accept this. Northern Syria has been handed over as a terror corridor. There is no peace in Syria and this peace won’t come with Assad,” Erdogan said.

Syria’s state news agency SANA quoted a foreign ministry source as saying Erdogan “continues to misdirect Turkish public opinion with his usual froth in an attempt to absolve himself of the crimes which he has committed against the Syrian people through advancing support to the various terrorist groups in Syria”.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Editing by Dominic Evans and Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Palestinian leader says Trump’s Jerusalem ‘crime’ prevents U.S. peace role

Palestinian leader says Trump's Jerusalem 'crime' prevents U.S. peace role

By Ali Kucukgocmen

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told Muslim leaders on Wednesday that a U.S. decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was a crime which showed that Washington should no longer play a role in Middle East peace talks.

Addressing an emergency meeting of Muslim leaders in Turkey, Abbas said President Donald Trump was giving Jerusalem away as if it were an American city.

“Jerusalem is and always will be the capital of Palestine,” he said, adding Trump’s decision was “the greatest crime” and a violation of international law.

Wednesday’s summit was hosted by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan who has bitterly criticized the United States, a NATO ally, for its stance on Jerusalem.

“I invite all countries supporting international law to recognise Jerusalem as the occupied capital of Palestine. We cannot be late any more,” Erdogan told leaders and ministers from more than 50 Muslim countries.

He described Trump’s decision last week as a reward for Israeli actions including occupation, settlement construction, land seizure and “disproportionate violence and murder”.

“Israel is an occupying state (and) Israel is a terror state,” he said.

Jerusalem, revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, is home to Islam’s third holiest site and has been at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades. Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem in 1967 and later annexed it in an action not recognised internationally.

Ahead of the meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Muslim nations should urge the world to recognise East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state within its pre-1967 borders.

He said this week Turkey was not seeking sanctions in response to the U.S. move, but wanted the summit to issue a strong rejection of the U.S. decision.

U.S. ‘BIAS’

The Trump administration says it remains committed to reaching peace between Israel and the Palestinians and its decision does not affect Jerusalem’s future borders or status.

It says any credible future peace deal will place the Israeli capital in Jerusalem, and ditching old policies is needed to revive a peace process frozen since 2014.

Abbas told the leaders in Istanbul that Washington could no longer be an honest broker.

“It will be unacceptable for it to have a role in the political process any longer since it is biased in favour of Israel,” he said. “This is our position and we hope you support us in this.”

Trump’s declaration has been applauded by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said Washington had an irreplaceable part to play in the region.

“There is no substitute to the role that the United States plays in leading the peace process,” he said at a Hanukkah holiday candle lighting ceremony on Tuesday.

King Abdullah of Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel more than 20 years ago, told the Istanbul summit that he rejected any attempt to change the status quo of Jerusalem and its holy sites.

Abdullah’s Hashemite dynasty is custodian of Jerusalem’s Muslim sites, making Amman sensitive to any changes in the city.

Iran, locked in a regional rivalry with Saudi Arabia, said the Muslim world should overcome internal problems through dialogue so it could unite against Israel.

Tehran has repeatedly called for the destruction of the Israeli state and backs several militant groups in their fight against it.

“America is only seeking to secure the maximum interests of the Zionists and it has no respect for the legitimate rights of Palestinians,” President Hassan Rouhani told the summit.

(Additional reporting by Daren Butler and Parisa Hafezi in Istanbul, John Davison and Nadine Awadalla in Cairo and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Catherine Evans, William Maclean)

Pakistani peace activist reported missing, police say

Demonstrators hold placards calling for the release of Raza Mehmood Khan, a member of Aghaz-i-Dosti (Start of Friendship), a group that works on peace building between Pakistan and India, during a protest in Lahore, Pakistan December 11, 2017.

By Syed Raza Hassan

Karachi, Pakistan (Reuters) – A Pakistani peace activist has been reported missing over the weekend from eastern city of Lahore, police and one of his friends said on Tuesday.

Raza Mehmood Khan, 40, a member of Aghaz-i-Dosti (Start of Friendship), a group that works on peace building between arch-rivals Pakistan and India, hasn’t been heard from since he left home on Sunday, said Rahim-ul-Haq, a friend and an associate.

He said the group has offices in both countries.

Police official Shehzad Raza said Khan’s family reported he had been missing since Saturday. No one has been accused in the report, he said. “We’re investigating.”

Several social media activists critical of the army and the country’s extremists and militant groups have gone missing in Pakistan in recent months.

Four of them were released nearly a month after they disappeared early this year. Two of them – Ahmad Waqas Goraya and Asim Saeed _ later alleged in interviews with BBC and their social media posts that Pakistani intelligence abducted and tortured them in custody.

Pakistan’s army has denied the accusations.

Haq said Khan spoke at a discussion on Saturday on the topic of extremism. “Everyone discussed their views and, of course, Raza was very critical,” he said.

He said that Raza’s recent Facebook posts were critical of Pakistani military, especially in view of a recent sit-in protest by hard-liners that paralyzed Islamabad for over two weeks.

The extremists won almost all of their demands, including resignation of a minister they accused of blasphemy, in an agreement brokered by the army.

(Writintg by Asif Shahzad, editing by Larry King)

Philippines’ Duterte ditches peace process with Maoist rebels

Philippines' Duterte ditches peace process with Maoist rebels

By Neil Jerome Morales

MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Friday he has terminated intermittent peace talks with Maoist-led rebels and would consider them “terrorists” because hostilities had continued during negotiations.

Ending the nearly half-century long conflict with the communists, in which more than 40,000 people have been killed, was among Duterte’s priorities when he took office in June last year.

Duterte said he would consider the political arm of the Maoists a “terrorist group” and was demanding that dozens of rebel leaders he freed last year in order to restart talks turn themselves in.

“I am ordering those I have released temporarily to surrender or face again punitive action,” Duterte in a speech to soldiers.

“Let it not be said that I did not try to reach out to them,” he said.

Duterte on Thursday signed a proclamation ending the peace talks, which started in August last year and were brokered by Norway. Talks have been intermittent since 1986.

“We find it unfortunate that their members have failed to show their sincerity and commitment in pursuing genuine and meaningful peaceful negotiations,” Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, said in a statement late on Thursday.

In May, government negotiators canceled a round of formal talks with the Maoist-led rebels in the Netherlands as the guerrillas stepped up attacks in the countryside.

The rebels had no choice but to intensify guerrilla warfare in rural areas, Jose Maria Sison, chief political consultant of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDF), said in a statement.

The NDF, the political arm of the Maoist guerrillas, said it regretted the unilateral cancellation of talks on such vital social and economic reforms.

Government troops were advised to stay alert on the movements of the estimated 3,800 leftist guerrillas, said military spokesman Major-General Restituto Padilla.

Government forces are also battling Islamist fighters in the south of the largely Christian country, some of whom recently occupied a town for several months in the biggest battle in the Philippines since World War Two.

(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel)

Russia-hosted summit could be decisive for Syria peace: Erdogan

Russia-hosted summit could be decisive for Syria peace: Erdogan

By Denis Pinchuk

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – A three-way summit on Wednesday between the leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey could produce decisive steps toward ending the bloodshed in Syria, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said at the start of their talks.

The summit, hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a rare occasion bringing together the leaders of Russia and Iran — who back Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad — around a table with Erdogan, who has supported Assad’s opponents.

In opening remarks at the summit in the southern Russian resort of Sochi, Putin, Erdogan and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani spoke of an opening for peace in Syria now that Islamic State has been pushed out of its last major stronghold there.

“The point we have reached is important, but not enough,” Erdogan told the gathering, also attended by military commanders and foreign ministers from the three countries.

“It is critical for all parties to contribute to a permanent and acceptable political solution for the people of Syria,” he said. “This summit is aimed at results, I believe critical decisions will be taken.”

As a prelude to the summit, Putin earlier this week hosted Assad at his residence in Sochi. It was the only time the Syrian leader is known to have left Syria since his last visit to Russia, two years ago.

Putin also made telephone calls in the past 24 hours to other leaders with influence in Syria, including U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, as part of Moscow’s drive to build an international consensus over a peace deal to end the six-year conflict.

“A NEW STAGE”

“We can say with certainty that we have reached a new stage, opening up the possibility to launch a real political process towards a peace deal,” Putin told the gathering.

“Compromises and concessions will be needed on all sides … including (from) the Syrian government,” Putin said.

He said the focus of peace efforts should be the convocation of a congress bringing together all of Syria’s ethnic groups.

Russia has offered to host such a congress in Sochi, but attempts to agree a date have so far foundered, in part because Turkey raised objections to the presence of some Kurdish groups.

Iran’s Rouhani used his remarks at the summit to rail against the presence of foreign forces in Syria, an apparent reference to the United States and Tehran’s arch regional rival Saudi Arabia, which alongside Turkey have backed Assad’s foes.

“There is no excuse for the presence of foreign troops in Syria without the approval of its legitimate government,” Rouhani said.

“The Syrian nation will not allow any interference of foreigners in their state affairs and will confront any move that harms Syria’s integrity, independence and unity,” he said.

Iran’s military is also present in Syria, alongside Russian troops and Hezbollah, the pro-Iran Lebanese militia. They say that does not amount to foreign interference because they are in Syria at Assad’s invitation.

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Parisa Hafezi in ANKARA; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Gareth Jones)