Syrian Kurdish-backed council holds talks in Damascus

Kurds stand in line and flash victory signs during a solidarity rally with the Syrian city of Kobani in the village of Caykara, Turkey, on the Turkey-Syria border, just across from Kobani, Tuesday Nov. 11, 2014. Kurds rally daily in villages in Turkey on the border with Syria in solidarity with the embattled Syrian city of Kobani, which has been under a brutal siege by the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

BEIRUT: A senior Syrian Kurdish official is in Damascus this week for talks with Syrian government officials at the head of a delegation including members of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an official said, their first declared visit to the capital.

The visit points to moves by the Kurdish-led authorities who control roughly one quarter of Syria to open channels to President Bashar al-Assad’s administration as they seek to negotiate a political deal that preserves their autonomy.

The delegation in Damascus is headed by Ilham Ahmed, executive head of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), said Riad Darar, SDC co-chair, speaking by phone from Vienna. The delegation arrived two days ago.

The meetings were expected to primarily discuss matters of service provision in the areas controlled by the Kurdish-led authorities, but Darar said that there was no set agenda and the talks might widen to political and security matters.

While the meetings did not mark the start of negotiations, Darar signaled that this was the aim, saying it was time to “solve our problems ourselves”.

“We have a basis for negotiations,” he added.

Any negotiations between Damascus and the SDF would raise new questions for US policy in Syria, where the US military has deployed into SDF-held territory during the campaign against Islamic State.

Assad says the US forces are occupiers. For the first time, Assad said in May that he was “opening doors” for talks with the SDF. He also threatened force and said the Americans would leave one way or another.

The Syrian Kurds have grown wary of the United States, put on guard by conflicting statements over its plans in Syria.

The area controlled by the SDF, spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG, spreads across much of northern and eastern Syria and includes farmland, oil resources, and water.

The territory expanded well beyond the predominantly Kurdish regions of the north into Arab areas such as Raqqa during the campaign against Islamic State.

The main Syrian Kurdish groups have mostly avoided conflict with Assad during the war, at times even fighting common foes — including rebels that his forces are gradually crushing with help from Russia and Iran.

The outcome of the Damascus meetings was not yet clear, Darar said, adding that he did not know which officials the delegation would meet. It was not clear how long they would stay.

Talks recently began over a return of state employees and repairs to one of Syria’s most important pieces of infrastructure: the Tabqa dam, Syria’s largest, which the SDF took from Islamic State last year.

Darar said those talks had been held with delegations that had come from Damascus. Referring to the Damascus visit, he said: “This is certainly the first visit that happened.”

The Kurds have been consistently left out of UN-led diplomacy in line with the wishes of NATO member Turkey, which views Syria’s dominant Kurdish groups as an extension of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Darar forecast the failure of UN-backed efforts currently focused on setting up a constitutional committee grouping the government, the opposition and independents. “I don’t think this committee will carry out its role,” he said.

“The door of Geneva will be shut.”

Syria’s Kurds, which the state systematically persecuted for years, say they do not seek independence, but hope a political deal will safeguard the autonomy.

Syrian Kurdish leaders have moved more cautiously than Kurds in Iraq who voted for independence in a referendum last year. The vote, which Washington opposed, plunged them into crisis and regional isolation. Eventually, they were forced to backtrack.