QAMISHLI, Syria (Reuters) - The head of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia believes talks with the government over the future of the northeast region will begin in days after a “positive” reaction from Damascus.
Any deal between the YPG and President Bashar al-Assad’s state could piece together the two biggest chunks of a nation splintered by eight years of conflict.
Dialogue attempts have revived in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from the Kurdish-led region.
“There are attempts to carry out negotiations ... the Syrian government stance was positive,” the YPG commander Sipan Hemo told Reuters. “We believe they will start in the coming days.”
In a voice recording sent from his representatives late on Wednesday, Hemo said U.S. moves to withdraw were over-hasty and could not happen while the battle against Islamic State militants still rages.
Syrian Kurdish leaders have sought Russian mediation for talks with Assad’s state, hoping to safeguard their autonomous region when U.S. troops currently backing them pull out.
They fear an attack by neighboring Turkey, which has threatened to crush the YPG.
On a recent visit, U.S. envoy James Jeffrey talked to him and other officials about both satisfying Turkey and protecting northern Syria, Hemo said.
U.S. arming of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the YPG spearheads, has infuriated NATO ally Turkey. Ankara sees the Syrian Kurdish fighters as indistinguishable from the Kurdish PKK movement that has waged an insurgency inside Turkey.
The Kurdish-led authority that runs much of north and east Syria presented a road map for an agreement with Assad in recent meetings with his key ally Russia.
Hemo said there had been no direct talks with the state since, but Damascus had received the proposal, which focused on preserving Kurdish and minority rights, including education, as well as self-rule.
Kurdish forces and Damascus have mostly avoided combat during the war. Assad, who has vowed to recover the entire country, has long opposed Kurdish ambitions for a federal Syria.
Short-lived talks between the two sides last summer went nowhere.
Government officials were not immediately available for comment, but a minister last week expressed optimism.
Mixed messages from Washington have clouded Trump’s abrupt announcement last month, which sparked concern among Western allies. The 2,000 American forces are still deployed in the SDF region, rich in oil, farmland and water - the biggest chunk of Syria outside state rule.
“Implementing this (U.S.) decision to withdraw practically is not possible in the near term,” Hemo said.
SDF fighters are now battling Islamic State remnants in an enclave in eastern Syria, after seizing vast swathes of land from the jihadists with U.S. help.
“Daesh is headed towards demise. There are many sleeper cells and there will be a long war with Daesh in this region,” Hemo said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
He said any safe zone in northeast Syria, which Trump mentioned on Twitter, should be under U.N. auspices. The SDF has welcomed the possibility but said any such zone must keep Turkey out.
“We want to be on good ties as neighbors, but the Turkish state does not accept this,” Hemo said. “If Turkey attacks our region, we will respond appropriately.”
Ankara has drawn on Syrian rebel proxies to help fight the YPG in the northwest before and has vowed to march further east.
Turkey’s foreign minister said on Thursday his country has the capacity to create a safe zone in Syria but would not exclude other states that want to cooperate.
Writing by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne