January 9, 2019 / 2:27 PM / 9 months ago

Syrian minister optimistic on Kurdish talks

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - A Syrian government minister expressed optimism on Wednesday over dialogue with Kurdish groups that want to strike a political deal with Damascus, suggesting progress had been made in contacts mediated by Russia.

FILE PHOTO: Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al Mekdad speaks during a news conference in Damascus, Syria March 10, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Kurdish-led groups who control swathes of northern Syria have revived contacts with Damascus in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from their region. These groups are keen to stave off any Turkish attack.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad’s comments to journalists were the first on the talks with the Kurds, who are calling on Damascus to deploy troops at the border with Turkey.

Asked whether progress had been made, Mekdad said: “I feel that we must always be optimistic. The past experiences were not encouraging. But now matters are reaching their conclusion.”

He signaled approval of recent statements by Kurdish groups affirming they are part of the Syrian state and nation, saying “the conditions” were favorable for them return to the state.

“Therefore I am always optimistic ... we encourage these political groups to be sincere in dialogue that is happening now between the Syrian state and these groups, taking into account that there is no alternative to that,” he told a small group of journalists including Reuters.

A top Syrian Kurdish politician told Reuters last week that the Kurdish groups had presented a “road map” for a deal with Damascus during recent meetings at the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow.

If such a deal could be agreed, it would piece back together the two biggest chunks of a country splintered by eight years of war and leave one corner of the northwest in the hands of anti-Assad rebels backed by Turkey.

The immediate priority for the Kurdish-led authorities of northern Syria is to find a way to shield the region from Turkey, which views the Kurdish YPG militia as a national security threat.

Turkey has already sent its army into Syria twice to push back the YPG. But it has held off attacking the large Kurdish-controlled area of the northeast where U.S. forces operate.

Mekdad said he was certain all “foreign forces” would withdraw from Syria.

Reporting by Kinda Makieh; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Hugh Lawson

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