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Syrian Kurds say plotting path to decentralisation with Assad government

After talks in Damascus, US-backed Syrian Democratic Council says it will form committees to end violence after seven years of war
The negotiations with Damascus raise new questions for US policy in Syria (Reuters)

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) said on Saturday that it and the Syrian government have decided at a meeting in Damascus to "form committees on various levels" to develop negotiations to end violence in Syria.

The committees would "chart a roadmap to a democratic, decentralised Syria," said the SDC, the political wing of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The talks in the Syrian capital this week pointed to moves by the Kurdish-led authorities in the quarter of Syria east of the Euphrates to seek a deal with President Bashar al-Assad to preserve their autonomy.

The meeting was at the invitation of the Syrian government, a statement said.

The talks are primarily thought to have been aimed at discussing services in Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria, but Riad Darar, the SDC's Arab co-chair, said on Friday the meetings had no set agenda and could move on to security and political matters.

Assad, who, backed by Russia and Iran, has recently taken back most rebel-held areas after seven years of conflict, has previously sworn to regain "every inch" of Syria.

He has also described the Kurdish administration in the northeast as "temporary structures" but late last year Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said a "form of autonomy" was "negotiable".

Sihanouk Dibo, an adviser to the main Kurdish faction, the leftist Democratic Union Party (PYD), said he expected the negotiations to be tough.

"It is still very early to talk of an agreement but we are working on it," he said. "The negotiations will be long and arduous because the Damascus regime is very centralised."

However, the negotiations with Damascus raise new questions for US policy in Syria, where the US military has deployed into SDF-held territory during the campaign against the Islamic State group (IS).

The Syrian Kurds have grown wary of the US, put on guard by conflicting statements over Washington's plans in the country, the Reuters news agency said.

Oil wealth

Relations between the Syrian government and the Kurdish-led administration, the two sides that hold the most territory in Syria, have been pivotal in the course of the seven-year-old civil war.

However, while they have mostly avoided direct conflict, they have articulated sharply opposing visions for the future, with the Kurds seeking autonomy in a decentralised state and Damascus wanting to restore full central control.

Despite losing some areas it once held to Turkish-backed rebel groups, the Syrian Kurds control important areas containing oil wealth, agricultural land and cities – including the predominantly Arab Raqqa.

Were Damascus to take back some control of this area, it would benefit greatly from its resources and cement its control over the majority of the country.

The SDF is under pressure from Ankara, which considers its leading component the YPG to be an extension of the Turkey-based PKK fighters, to relinquish control of key areas along the Turkish border.

Turkey has shown particular interest in Arab-majority areas such as Manbij, which the YPG agreed to pull out of in a US-brokered deal.

Syria's Kurds have been excluded from the ailing UN-led peace negotiations that have been running throughout most of the war.

In the latest attempt to reach a diplomatic breakthrough, the UN is busy setting up a committee to rework Syria’s constitution, including government, opposition and independent figures.

On Friday, Darar said those talks were doomed to fail.

"I don't think this committee will carry out its role," he said. "The door of Geneva will be shut."