UN mediator Staffan de Mistura has held his second meeting with the government delegation to the Syrian peace talks and begun discussions with representatives of the Kurdish-Arab Democratic Council, the second opposition group to join the talks.
The admission of the council coincided with the declaration by the Kurdish Democratic Union, the council's dominant component, of its intention to establish a Kurdish federal state called "Rojava" in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria, a move rejected by Arab Syrians, the government and Turkey, which has been battling separatist Turkish Kurds for 30 years.
Government delegation head Bashar al-Jaafari refused to comment on the Kurdish move but warned “betting on creating divisions among Syrians will be a total failure”. He reiterated Damascus’s rejection of direct talks.
The meeting with the council, dubbed the “Moscow group”, is particularly important because it introduces a third delegation and brings in Arab allies of the Syrian Kurds who have, at Turkey’s insistence, been excluded from the talks so far.
Russia has repeatedly called for the inclusion of the council and the US-allied Kurds, who are the most effective force fighting Islamic State in northern Syria. Council Arab members who met Mr de Mistura include Qadri Jamil, a former deputy prime minister, Jihad Makdissi, previously Syrian foreign ministry spokesman, and veteran activist Randa Kassis.
In rare agreement, both the government and the Riyadh-based High Negotiations Committee (HNC) had sought to exclude the council from the talks. The council adopts a more moderate line toward the government than the HNC and could bridge the gulf between these two.
Council spokesman Fateh Jamous, former political prisoner and head of the Syrian Communist Labour party, said: "Our invitation is proof that the talks have entered a new, more serious stage."
As a second wave of Russian combat and transport aircraft flew out of Syria, HNC-affiliated Building the Syrian State spokeswoman
told The Irish Times that it is “too early to predict the consequences of the Russian withdrawal from Syria”.
She argued the pull-out could “effect negatively the negotiations” by weakening the government and strengthening hard-liners within the HNC. Her group, based in Damascus until 2015, is among the moderates in the HNC. So far, she believes Russian action has had a positive impact as it “has helped pave the way for a political solution”.
The Russians could always return if insurgents break the ceasefire by attacking government forces, she said.
In her view, the talks “will not conclude soon and will have to include civil society and women’s groups. For this reason we are advocating a round table [that could accommodate] all participants once direct talks begin.”
Mr De Mistura has added a Russian academic Vitaly Naumkin to his team of advisers and has requested a US expert. Russian foreign minister and his US counterpart John Kerry are set to meet next week in Moscow to discuss the peace process. Mr Kerry said the Russian pull-out at the opening of the talks "may be the best opportunity" to end the conflict.
have called Russia’s military pull-out a positive development. League chief Nabil al-Arabi said, “The Russian announcement . . . represents a positive and important step toward fostering efforts . . . for the success of the Geneva negotiations and for stabilising the truce.”
Iranian foreign minister Mohamed Jawad Zarif said: "The fact that Russia announced they are withdrawing part of their forces indicates that they don't see an imminent need for re- sourt to force in maintaining the ceasefire."
Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubair called the pull out “a very positive step” and expressed the hope that it would prompt the government to make concessions.