November 25, 2017 / 3:55 PM / 22 days ago

Iran's Rouhani says Sochi summit 'right step, at right time' for Syria

LONDON (Reuters) - The trilateral meeting between Iran, Russia and Turkey in the Russian resort of Sochi this week was “a right step, at the right time” for stability in Syria, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin won the backing of Turkey and Iran on Wednesday to host a Syrian peace congress, taking the central role in a major diplomatic push to finally end a civil war all but won by Assad.

“Sochi summit … was a right step at the right time,” Rouhani was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA on Saturday in a phone call with Tehran’s main regional ally.

He said a national congress to hold face-to-face talks between government and opposition could be “a step towards stability and security of Syria.”

Iran has signed large economic contracts with Syria, reaping what appear to be lucrative rewards for helping Assad in his fight against rebel groups and Islamic State militants.

“Tehran is ready to have an active role in reconstruction of Syria,” Rouhani added.

The chief commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who has sent weapons and thousands of soldiers to Syria to prop up Assad’s regime, also said on Thursday that their forces were ready to help rebuild Syria and bring about a lasting “ceasefire” there.

Syria’s six-year civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions to flee in the worst refugee crisis since World War Two.

In a joint statement in Sochi, the three leaders called on the Syrian government and moderate opposition to “participate constructively” in the planned congress, to be held in the same city on a date they did not specify.

SAUDI OPPOSITION

Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch rival in the Middle East, also sponsored a meeting on Wednesday at a luxury hotel in Riyadh for the Syrian opposition groups.

Regional tensions have risen in recent weeks between Sunni Muslim monarchy Saudi Arabia and Shi‘ite Iran.

Saudi Crown Prince called the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “the new Hitler of the Middle East” in an interview with the New York Times published on Thursday.

Israel also views Iran as the main threat in the region, and a cabinet minister said this month Israel has had covert contacts with Saudi Arabia.

“It is very odd that a regional country considers Iranian nation as its enemy and the Zionist regime as its friend,” Rouhani told Assad in the call.

The next round of U.N.-backed peace talks in Geneva aimed at ending the Syrian civil war will begin on Nov. 28.

Editing by Clelia Oziel

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