July 16, 2018 / 9:53 AM / 5 months ago

Kurdish-backed body aims to widen authority in Syrian northeast

TABQA, Syria (Reuters) - The political arm of the Syrian Democratic Forces militia said on Monday it would work to set up a unified administration for areas it controls, a step that would consolidate its authority in northern and eastern Syria.

FILE PHOTO: Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) sit at the back of a truck in Deir al-Zor, Syria May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said

The Kurdish-led SDF holds around a quarter of Syria, much of it captured from Islamic State with the help of the U.S.-led coalition. It is the biggest chunk of the country outside the control of President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The plan announced on Monday at a congress of the Syrian Democratic Council in Tabqa aims to bring together civil councils that have emerged across SDF territory in the north and east.

“This is an administration to coordinate among the areas because there are gaps ... to secure needs in all areas,” Ilham Ahmed, the co-chair of the SDC and a top Syrian Kurdish politician, told Reuters.

Ahmed said the initiative was still in the early phases of discussion and the goal was to include all SDF territory. “It will have a benefit when it comes to ensuring security and stability,” she said.

The SDF is spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia but has expanded beyond majority Kurdish parts of the north. Its territory now includes Raqqa city, Islamic State’s former Syrian base of operations, and the eastern Deir al-Zor province at the Iraqi border.

The group wants the Syrian conflict to end with a decentralized system that secures rights for minorities, including Kurds. The YPG and SDF have mostly avoided conflict with Assad during the seven-year war, setting them apart from rebels in western Syria who fought to topple him. The SDF and YPG say they do not seek an independent state.

Riad Darar, the second SDC co-chair, told Reuters that in the absence of a political solution, the SDC aimed to strengthen the administration of SDF-held areas.

INSURGENCY

The plan will combine the councils of Raqqa, Deir al-Zor and other areas, as well as the autonomous administration of the eastern Jazeera region. The new “organized entity (will) practice a form of governance ... draw up practical policies for people’s lives and provide services,” he added.

Darar said the SDF sought to become part of the army in a future, decentralized Syria, after there is a peace settlement.

Despite their big territorial sway, Syrian Kurdish groups have consistently been left out of U.N. peace talks, in line with the wishes of NATO member Turkey. Ankara views the YPG as part of the Kurdish PKK movement, which has mounted a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

Assad said last month that Damascus was opening “doors for negotiations” with the SDF, but if these failed it would resort to force to recapture the areas where some 2,000 U.S. forces are stationed.

Though Kurdish leaders say they are ready to talk to Damascus, Ahmed signaled there had been no moves toward negotiations. She said Assad’s comments had not moved beyond “the theoretical level”.

The Kurdish-led administrations in northern Syria last year began a three-stage election that aimed to deepen their autonomy through the new elected institutions.

But the third and final stage of that election was postponed indefinitely after Turkey launched an incursion into the Kurdish Afrin region of northwest Syria, a leading Kurdish politician told Reuters last month.

Reporting by Rodi Said in Tabqa and Beirut bureau; Writing by Tom Perry/Ellen Francis, editing by Larry King, William Maclean

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