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Kurds plan to carve out quasi-state in northern Syria

BEIRUT -- A powerful Syrian Kurdish political party announced plans Wednesday to declare a federal region in northern Syria, a model it hopes can be applied to the entire country. The idea was promptly dismissed by Turkey and also the Syrian government team at U.N.-brokered peace talks underway in Geneva.

The declaration was expected to be made at the end of a Kurdish conference that began Wednesday in the town of Rmeilan in Syria's northern Hassakeh province.

The development comes as the Damascus government and Western- and Saudi-backed rebels are holding peace talks with a U.N. envoy in Geneva on ways to resolve the country's devastating civil war, which this week entered its sixth year.

The main Syrian Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People's Protection Units, has so far been excluded from those talks so as not to anger Turkey, despite Russia's insistence that they be part of the negotiations. Ankara views the group as a terrorist organization.

Nawaf Khalil of the PYD told The Associated Press that his party is not lobbying for an only-Kurdish region but an all-inclusive area that would include representation for Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds in northern Syria.

Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 percent of the country's prewar population of 23 million. They are centered in the impoverished Hassakeh province, wedged between the borders of Turkey and Iraq.

The People's Protection Units, a Syrian-Kurdi... 04:17

Syria's Kurds have dramatically strengthened their hold on northern Syria during the civil war, carving out territory as they battled to drive out Islamic militant fighters allied to the rebellion and declaring their own civil administration in areas under their control.

A federal region could be a first step toward creating an autonomous region similar to the one Kurds run across the border in Iraq, where their territory is virtually a separate country.

It could also usher in similar demands for federal regions elsewhere in Syria and in effect lead to a partition of the war-shattered country.

However, a Turkish foreign ministry official said his country rejects any moves that would compromise Syria's national unity and considers the territorial integrity of Syria as "essential."

It's up to the Syrian people to "decide on the executive and administrative structure of Syria in line with the new constitution which will be formulated through the political transition process," said the official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with government practice.

"Unilateral moves carry no validity," the official said, effectively rejecting the Syrian Kurdish faction's plan.

Both the Syrian government and the opposition, at least in theory, reject any form of partitioning of the country. Riad Naasan Agha, a member of the Saudi-backed Syrian opposition, said such issues should be decided through Syrian institutions including elections.

"What someone declares on their own, far away from the Syrian people is unacceptable," Agha said.

Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar Ja'afari, who also heads the Syrian government team at the U.N. brokered talks in Geneva, said the negotiations in Switzerland are meant to discuss the unity of Syria and how to preserve its territorial integrity.

"Betting on creating any kind of divisions among the Syrians will be a total failure," Ja'afari said.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday said federalization is one possible option in Syria if it is the will of the Syrian people. He said Russia will support whatever solution the Syrian government and the opposition devise to end the country's war, including "any form (of government) whatever it may be called: federalization, decentralization, unitary state."

Khalil, distinguished between prevailing autonomous rule for the Kurdish areas - which has been in effect in Syria since 2013 - and the federalism project, which he said was ethnically inclusive.

"The federalism project is a model for all Syria," he said in a phone interview from Germany, where he is based.

A federal region in northern Syria is sure to anger Turkey, which considers the PYD as a terrorist group and an extention of the PKK group that is waging an insurgency in southeastern Turkey. The group's military wing, the people's Protection Units, or YPG, leads the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extremists in Syria and is backed by both the United States and Russia.

Much of Syria's border with Turkey is now controlled by the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces - an alliance that includes Kurds, Arabs and Christians - which has distinguished itself from the Syrian government and the mainstream opposition in the country's civil war.

The Kurdish move comes at a critical juncture in the conflict.

A two-week-old Russia and U.S.-engineered partial cease-fire is holding and peace talks have resumed this week in Geneva. Moreover, Russia on Tuesday began withdrawing the bulk of its troops from Syria, signaling an end to Moscow's five-and-a-half month air campaign. That move raised hopes for more meaningful discussions in Switzerland where de Mistura is holding proximity talks with both the Syrian government team and the representatives of the moderate, western-backed opposition.

Russia's defense ministry said another group of its aircraft left the Russian air base in Syria on Wednesday and is returning home.

NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed Russia's decision. In an interview with The Associated Press, he said it's a contribution to efforts to reduce military tensions and find a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict.

Stoltenberg, who spoke during a visit to the Afghan capital of Kabul, said the consequences of the withdrawal are yet to be seen but that he "would welcome any action that reduces the military tensions in Syria."

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said Moscow is satisfied with the joint work with Washington on coordinating Syria peace efforts. Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday the Syrian peace process is the main focus now for Moscow and Washington.

He hailed Washington's "readiness to coordinate those efforts."

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