A powerful Kurdish party announced plans Wednesday to declare a federal region in northern Syria, an idea promptly dismissed by Turkey and Syrian government negotiators at U.N.-brokered peace talks.
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.
It 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 end the 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 (YPG), have 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 by phone from Germany, where he is based, that his party is not lobbying for a Kurdish region but an all-inclusive area with representation for Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds in northern Syria.
Salih Muslim, the co-president of the PYD, speaking to the AP in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, that the decision to declare a federal region was not yet official, but any such announcement would be a positive step that helps keep Syria together.
He suggested the only way forward was a decentralized Syria and that any formula for that, whether federalism or autonomy, would be acceptable to the Kurds. "The name is not important," he added.
Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 percent of the prewar population of 23 million. They control an area along the Turkish border stretching from Syria's far east, near the Iraqi border, to Afrin in the west, interrupted only by a stretch of territory that the Islamic State group controls.
Syria's Kurds have declared their own civil administration in three distinct enclaves, or cantons, under their control: Jazira, Kobani and Afrin.
Around 200 Kurdish representatives from those three cantons, known collectively as Western Kurdistan, or Rojava, were meeting in Rmeilan Wednesday to discuss the move.
Federalism 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 elsewhere in Syria and in effect lead to partition.
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.
Turkey views the PYD as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has renewed a decades-old insurgency since peace talks collapsed last year. The United States also considers the PKK a terrorist group, but both the U.S. and Russia support the YPG, which has been among the most effective forces battling the Islamic State group.
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 civil war.
Though the PYD is the predominant authority in northern Syria, it shares authority in some pockets with the Damascus government. These arrangements, around the cities of Hassakeh and Qamishli, are generally calm but sometimes flare up into confrontations.
Two days ago, Assad loyalists belonging to the National Defense Force militia clashed with Kurdish police forces in Qamishli. On Wednesday, the police arrested 60 militia members, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group that monitors the conflict, said.
Both the Syrian government and the opposition, at least in theory, reject any form of partition. Riad Naasan Agha, a member of the Saudi-backed 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 government team at the U.N.-brokered talks in Geneva, said the negotiations are meant to discuss preserving Syria's 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 government and the opposition devise to end the war, including "any form (of government) whatever it may be called: federalization, decentralization, unitary state."
The PYD's Khalil distinguished between autonomous rule over 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.
The Kurdish move comes at a critical juncture in the conflict.
A two-week-old Russian and U.S.-engineered partial cease-fire is holding and peace talks resumed this week. 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 U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura is shuttling between delegations from the Syrian government and the moderate, Western-backed opposition.
NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told The Associated Press that Russia's partial withdrawal should contribute to efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict.
Stoltenberg, who spoke during a visit to Afghanistan, 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."
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Dominique Soguel in Istanbul, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Lynne O'Donnell in Kabul contributed to this report.
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