By Rodi Said and Stephanie Nebehay
Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria were expected to imminently declare a federal system, a move likely to further complicate peace talks in Geneva on ending more than five years of war.
Russia pulled more warplanes out of Syria, a new delivery of humanitarian aid reached northern Aleppo province and UN mediator Staffan de Mistura named a Russian academic to his team of advisers in a nod to Russia’s importance in ending fighting.
But despite a more than two-week-old “cessation of hostilities” and President Vladimir Putin’s decision to pull out of Syria some of the Russian forces that have tipped the balance of the war in President Bashar al-Assad’s favour, any hopes of a breakthrough at the peace talks in Geneva remain slim.
The Kurds appear to be taking matters into their own hands after being excluded from the talks in Geneva, which began on Monday, by drawing up plans to combine three Kurdish-led autonomous areas of northern Syrian into a federal arrangement.
This arrangement, which two senior Kurdish officials said they backed, would be sure to alarm neighbouring Turkey, which fears growing Kurdish sway in Syria is fuelling separatism among its own Kurdish minority.
“Syria’s national unity and territorial integrity is fundamental for us. Outside of this, unilateral decisions cannot have validity,” a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said.
The Syrian Kurdish YPG militia have been an important ally in the US-led military campaign against Islamic State in Syria, and this has also been a point of friction between the United States and its NATO ally Turkey.
In Geneva, Bashar Ja’afari, head of the Syrian delegation in Geneva, also rejected any talk of a federal model for Syria and ruled out direct talks with the main opposition delegation.
Ja’afari also said Putin’s announcement of a partial withdrawal of his armed forces on Monday had come as no surprise to the Syrian government, describing it as “common decision, taken both by President Putin and President Assad”.
SYRIA POSITION UNCHANGED
Some Western officials and commentators speculated Putin intended the partial withdrawal to force the Syrian government to soften its position at the talks to improve chances of progress, but Ja’afari signalled no change in its stance.
Putin’s announcement surprised the West. He cited Russian military success in Syria as the reason for the draw-down but his belief that the intervention delivered him a seat at the top table of world affairs may have tipped his hand.
De Mistura’s appointment of Vitaly Naumkin plays into this narrative. A former Soviet army officer, Naumkin is an expert on Islam and the Arab world and served as a moderator at earlier peace talks on Syria that were held in Moscow.
But, talking about the latest round of talks last week, Naumkin told Russia’s RIA news agency: “There are no expectations. It is a difficult, complicated negotiation process.”
The Geneva talks are part of a diplomatic push launched with US-Russian support to end a conflict that has killed more than 250,000 people, created the world’s worst refugee crisis, and allowed for the rise of Islamic State.
U.S.-Russian cooperation has already brought about a lull in the war via the “cessation of hostilities agreement”, though many violations have been reported.
Opening the indirect talks, de Mistura said Syria faced a “moment of truth”, and he has described Putin’s decision to withdraw some of Russia’s forces as a “significant development”.
Regional foes Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are deeply at odds over Syria, welcomed Putin’s move and the Arab League said it would help the UN-mediated talks to end the conflict.
Just under half of Russia’s fixed-wing strike force based in Syria has flown out in the past two days, according to Reuters calculations based on state television footage.
The precise number of planes that Russia kept at its Hmeymim base in Syria’s Latakia province is secret. But analysis of satellite imagery, air strikes and defence ministry statements suggested it had about 36 fixed-wing military warplanes there.
At least 15 of those planes have been seen on television flying out in the past two days, including Su-24, Su-25, Su-30 and Su-34 jets though Reuters could not independently verify the movements of the aircraft.
RUSSIAN JETS IN ACTION
Despite the partial withdrawal, Russian warplanes have been carrying out new sorties against positions belonging to Islamic State, which is not covered by the cessation of hostilities.
Assad also still enjoys military backing from Iran, which has sent forces to Syria along with Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
The United States has also been carrying out air strikes in Syria. An Islamic State-linked website said the radical Muslim group had shot down a military plane near Kirkuk in Syria, but US officials said they knew nothing of such reports.
Under the cessation of hostilities, fresh humanitarian aid has reached areas hit by recent fighting. A new convoy of 26 trucks brought aid to about 13,000 families in northern Aleppo province, the Red Cross said.
The delivery by the Syrian Red Crescent to towns including Azaz, Afrin and Tal Rifaat was the largest in the area for weeks, Red Cross spokesman Pawel Krzysiek said. Clinics had been resupplied in the meantime, he said.
On the second day of talks in Geneva on Tuesday, opposition negotiators demanded that the government detail its thoughts on a political transition in Syria and said there had been no progress on freeing detainees.
The moves at a conference in the Kurdish-controlled town of Rmeilan, which was discussing a “Democratic Federal System for Rojava – Northern Syria”, further complicated hopes of progress in Geneva. Rojava is the Kurdish name for northern Syria.
Aldar Khalil, a Kurdish official and one of the organisers, told Reuters he anticipated the approval of a new system, and “democratic federalism” was the best one. Idris Nassan, another Kurdish official, expected a declaration of federalism.
Syrian Kurds effectively control an uninterrupted stretch of 400 km along the Syrian-Turkish border from the Euphrates river to the frontier with Iraq, where Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed autonomy since the early 1990s. They also hold a separate section of the north-western border in the Afrin area.