BEIRUT Syrian Kurds and their allies aim to finalize plans within six months for an autonomous political federation in northern Syria, pressing ahead despite the objections of foreign governments which fear Syria's disintegration.
While talks to end the five-year conflict in Syria struggle, the plans are taking shape independently of United Nations-led diplomacy and creating facts on the ground in an area of the country known in Kurdish as Rojava.
But the goal of a federal administration where Kurdish officials say other ethnic groups will have autonomy and rights is encountering resistance, notably from the United States, which backs the main Kurdish militia militarily.
Hadiya Yousef, a Kurdish official leading efforts to build the new government, says it is time the West gave its full backing to a plan she says is not aimed at Kurdish secession but at helping to resolve the Syrian crisis.
"We don't expect hostile parties to support this project, but we hope Western states that have lived the experience of unions and federalism to support this type of project," she told Reuters in an interview.
Kurdish groups have emerged as some of the best organized in Syria since the eruption of the conflict in 2011.
Their militia, the YPG, has carved out three areas of northern Syria where regional governments have already been set up. Yousef expects the new federal government to grow into areas where Islamic State is losing ground.
The YPG has been a crucial partner for the United States in its campaign against Islamic State in Syria, and forms the backbone of the Syria Democratic Forces alliance that is battling the jihadist group across wide areas of the north.
But that has not been translated into political support from the United States, whose policy is shaped partly by Turkey's concerns that rising Kurdish influence in Syria is fuelling separatism among its own Kurdish minority.
When representatives of the Kurdish-controlled north voted last month to establish the self-run "federal democratic system of Rojava", Washington reiterated its opposition to "semi-autonomous zones inside Syria". The main Syrian Kurdish party, the PYD, has meanwhile been left out of the U.N.-led peace talks, in line with Turkey's wishes.
Yousef, 43, said the decision to set up a federal government was in large part driven by the expansion of territories captured from Islamic State, including Arab towns.
"Now, after the liberation of many areas, it requires us to go to a wider and more comprehensive system that can embrace all the developments in the area, that will also give rights to all the groups to represent themselves and to form their own administrations," she added.
JAILED FOR KURDISH ACTIVISM
Jailed for two years in Damascus prior to the war on charges of being a member of a secret organization aiming to break up Syria, Yousef today rejects any notion Kurds are pursuing a separatist agenda, even as they become more powerful.
Kurds, the largest non-Arab ethnic group in Syria, faced systematic discrimination by the state until the 2011 uprising. Kurdish minorities also exist in Iran and Iraq, where Kurds have established a regional government in the north.
Yousef is co-chair of a 151-member council including Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians and other groups that will approve a new constitution known as a "social contract". Drafting will begin after consultative meetings at community level.
Such meetings have already been held in the town of al-Shadadi, recently captured from Islamic State, and Sarrin, a town just east of the Euphrates river in Aleppo province seized from the jihadists last year.
"All the meetings are so far positive," she said.
Though the details have yet to be agreed, Yousef said a new government would have a legislative council based in a yet-to-be-decided location. The constitution would also define the nature of the relationship between the federation and the government of a reformed, democratic Syria, she said.
"After the approval of the social contract, there will be general elections in the area of democratic federalism and the formation of a council elected by the people," said Yousef.
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups fighting to topple him all reject what they see as Kurdish separatism. Assad's government said the vote last month to seek self-administration had no "legal value" because it did not represent the will of all Syrians.
Yousef said preparations over the next six months would include public diplomacy abroad to explain the plan, adding: "We will work as hard as we can to be ready in six months."
(Editing by Catherine Evans)