By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's first special envoy for the Syrian crisis praised Russia's military role in the war on Friday, and said the international community should work harder together to defeat terrorism in the region.
Russia's military intervention in Syria in September helped turn the tide of war in President Bashar al-Assad's favor after months of gains in western Syria by rebel fighters, who were aided by foreign military supplies including U.S.-made anti-tank missiles.
While President Vladimir Putin announced last month that "the main part" of Russian armed forces in Syria would start to withdraw, the Russian air force has continued to carry out strikes on targets in the country.
Russia says it has targeted Islamic State militants. But rebels on the ground and Western officials say the strikes have mainly targeted moderate rebel groups, including U.S.-trained fighters, not associated with Islamic State.
Speaking to reporters in Beijing after being appointed last week, China's special envoy Xie Xiaoyan said Russia's military operations were carried out at the invitation of Syria's government with the aim of striking at domestic extremists.
"Russia's anti-terrorist operations in Syria are part of international counter-terrorism efforts. Russia's military operations in Syria in the past six months have effectively curbed the spread of extremists and terrorists there. I think this is encouraging progress," Xie said.
Syria regards all rebel groups fighting Assad as terrorists.
A new round of peace talks are expected to start soon which have gone hand-in-hand with a cessation of hostilities lasting more than a month, raising the prospect of an end to a war that has killed more than 250,000 people and driven many Syrians from their homes.
China has repeatedly urged a political solution.
"Efforts to counter terrorists and extremists within Syria will also help the political settlement of the Syrian issue," Xie said.
"It is also a good thing for counter-terrorism endeavors in the region. The international community should look at the larger picture of counter-terrorism in Syria, cooperate closely and form synergies."
While relying on the region for oil supplies, China tends to leave Middle Eastern diplomacy to the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, namely the United States, Britain, France and Russia.
But China has been trying to get more involved, and has its own security concerns.
China is worried that Uighurs, a mostly Muslim people from western China's Xinjiang, have ended up in Syria and Iraq fighting for militant groups there, having traveled illegally via Southeast Asia and Turkey. Asked about the Uighurs, Xie declined to comment.
(Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)