Russia, Turkey and Iran cast themselves as the essential deal-makers in Syria on Tuesday, saying at a trilateral meeting in Moscow that their cooperation could pave the way for a future settlement in Syria.
The meeting of foreign and defense ministers of the three nations that previously backed the opposing sides in the nearly six-year conflict reflected a shared interest in brokering a compromise. The talks come a day after the killing of the Russian ambassador in Turkey, but Moscow and Ankara vowed that the attack wouldn't hurt their rapprochement.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said after the talks that the three nations believe their efforts could overcome the "stagnation" in the Syrian peace process.
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"The format you see today is the most efficient one," Lavrov said. "It's not an attempt to cast a shadow on the efforts taken by our other partners, it's just stating the facts."
He cited the evacuation of civilians and rebels from Aleppo, brokered by Moscow and Ankara, as proof of the efficiency of the trilateral cooperation. "More than any others, our states are ready to help the settlement with real deeds and not just words," he said.
Lavrov added that it would take one or two days to complete the evacuations.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said 37,500 people had been evacuated from Aleppo, crediting Russia with making it possible.
Cavusoglu said they talked about establishing a cease-fire across the entire territory of Syria, adding that the Islamic State group and al-Qaida's branch in Syria, the Fatah al-Sham Front, would be excluded from the deal.
The three ministers carefully tip-toed around their differences. Lavrov noted the need for all parties to stop sponsoring "terrorists," while Cavusoglu said that policy should also apply to the Hezbollah, a close ally of both Tehran and Damascus.
Zarif replied with a smile that the United Nations Security Council has branded the Islamic State group and Fatah al-Sham Front terrorist organizations, while opinions about other groups may vary
The ministers said in their statements that the three nations are ready to act as guarantors of a cease-fire deal that would also allow the deliveries of humanitarian assistance and free travel of civilians, inviting other nations which have influence with Syrian groups to help reach the agreement.
The United States was notably absent from the meeting, although Lavrov had a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry later Tuesday, informing him about the results of the trilateral talks.
The meeting appears to signal that the former rivals may have reached a deal on dividing spheres of influence in Syria that would see Turkey cut support for Assad's foes in exchange for freedom of action in the areas along its border. Turkey's priority is to prevent Syria's Kurds from merging areas under their control.
Sergei Fokin, a Moscow-based military analyst, said that the trilateral meeting marked a significant step toward settling the conflict. "Russia, Iran and Turkey will clearly play a dominant role while the influence of other players, primarily Saudi Arabia, will dwindle," he said, according to the Interfax news agency.
In Aleppo, a fleet of buses entered east Aleppo again Tuesday afternoon to evacuate the remaining rebels and civilians from the city, activists said. Thousands of people have been evacuated over the past week, heading to opposition-held areas further north.
Residents from eastern Aleppo and the Syrian opposition say the evacuation amounts to forced displacement. Months of devastating Syrian and Russian air raids that destroyed buildings, hospitals and schools in the enclave — and reduced much of eastern Aleppo to rubble — left the residents with little choice but to evacuate.
The taking of all of eastern Aleppo would mark Assad's greatest victory since the 2011 uprising against his family's four-decade rule, but the cost has been staggering. Thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands more have been displaced, many of whom may never return.
In western Aleppo, a bomb went off as scores of people were gathered to celebrate the return of Aleppo to government control as well as a Christmas tree-lighting event.
Syrian state TV said there were no injuries from the bomb which went off in a predominantly Christian area near Azizieh square where dozens of Syrians were dancing and waving Syrian flags in celebration. The attack briefly disrupted the party which resumed few minutes later.
The precise number of people seeking evacuation from Aleppo — and who have already left — has never been clear.
Rami Aburrahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said 17,000 civilians and 5,000 fighters have left; the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has overseen the evacuations, said 25,000 have left; and the Turkish Foreign Ministry's figure is 37,000.
Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Monday's killing of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov in Ankara was a provocation by those who want to derail peace talks for Syria and "drive a wedge between Russia and Turkey," but added that the two countries should cooperate even more closely.
The development followed a U.N. Security Council resolution that was agreed on Monday night to shore up the number of observers to monitor the exodus.