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Saudi Arabia and Russia discuss 'co-operation' in Syria

Riyadh and Moscow are backing opposite sides of the war in Syria, but discussed co-ordinating their anti-militant efforts
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Saudi Defence Minister Mohammed Bin Salman in June (AFP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Saudi Arabia's King Salman about finding a solution to the Syria crisis on Saturday, just two days before he is due to address the UN on the issue, the Kremlin said.

In a telephone conversation held at Russia's behest, the two men "exchanged views on regional security matters, first and foremost, in the context of finding ways to settle the conflict in Syria", a statement posted to the Kremlin's website said.

They also discussed "building more effective international cooperation in the fight against the so-called Islamic State and other terrorist groups", it said.

A decades-long backer of the Damascus regime, Moscow has steadfastly supported President Bashar al-Assad throughout four-and-a-half years of war that have killed more than 240,000 people.

Saudi Arabia is part of a US-led coalition that began an air campaign against IS in Syria last September, and insists it will never cooperate with the Assad regime.

On Monday, Putin will address the General Assembly in New York to outline his plan for Syria, notably the idea of expanding a coalition, which would include Assad's army, to fight Islamic State.

He will also meet US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the gathering in their first formal talk in two years.

Russia has lately boosted its military presence in Syria, deploying more troops and warplanes to an air base along with new arms deliveries to Assad's forces. Last week, the Syrian army used Russian drones against militant targets for the first time.

On Saturday, a Syrian military source told AFP that at least 15 Russian cargo planes transporting "equipment and personnel" had landed at the Hmeimim military base in western Syria in the past two weeks.

Moscow's military build-up comes as Washington's own policy for fighting IS in Syria appears to be in increasing disarray.

Washington has a $500-million programme to train and equip vetted moderates recruited from among the rebels fighting Assad, but it has faced repeated setbacks.

Washington and its allies have up until now insisted that Assad has no future in Syria, but there have been recent signs of a policy shift which would perhaps allow him an interim role until a new government is formed.

On Friday, a Russian diplomat raised the possibility of Moscow joining the Washington-led coalition against IS provided the UN Security Council gave a legal framework for its action.

"It is in theory possible that all those involved join the coalition if it receives the approval of the UN Security Council," Ilya Rogatchev, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Department for New Challenges and Threats, told AFP.