July 28, 2018 / 8:20 AM / 19 days ago

Syrian Kurds say they will 'chart roadmap to decentralized Syria' with Damascus

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A Syrian Kurdish group said on Saturday it had decided with the government to “chart a roadmap to a democratic and decentralized Syria”, but there was no immediate confirmation from Damascus.

Burnt cars are seen in Quneitra, Syria July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Relations between the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and the Kurdish-led administration in the northeast, 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 decentralized state, and Damascus wanting to restore full central control.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) said it and the government had decided to “form committees on various levels” to develop negotiations, end the violence engulfing Syria and chart a roadmap to democracy and decentralization.

It said it met Syrian government officials in Damascus this week at Assad’s invitation after initial meetings in Tabqa on the Euphrates river that focused on restoring local services.

The SDC is the political wing of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which gained control of the quarter of Syria east of the Euphrates, an area that includes farmland and oil and water resources, during the fight against Islamic State.

The talks pointed to moves by the Kurdish-led authorities to seek a deal with Assad to preserve their autonomy as he regained most rebel areas with Russian and Iranian help while they have grown wary of their unpredictable U.S. ally.

Assad has sworn to regain “every inch” of Syria but said in May for the first time that he was “opening doors” for talks with the SDF, while also threatening force. He has described the Kurdish administration’s democratic bodies in the northeast as “temporary structures”.

“It’s hard to see how they will reach more substantive agreement in the coming months because you just have a huge gap between the two sides on what the future of this region should look like,” said Noah Bonsey, the International Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst on Syria.

Any Syrian Kurdish negotiations with Damascus would also generate new questions for U.S. policy in Syria, where the U.S. military has deployed into SDF-held territory during the campaign against Islamic State insurgents.

The Syrian Kurds have been put on guard towards Washington over the Trump administration’s conflicting statements about its plans in Syria, and over pressure exerted on the United States by Turkey, which has staged military incursions into Syria to battle the YPG, a Kurdish militia that spearheads the SDF.

Reporting by Angus McDowall in Beirut with additional reporting by Rodi Said in northern Syria and Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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