Russia invites Kurds to join Syria peace congress

Russian foreign minister makes offer despite Turkish offensive against militia in northern Syria

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters are seen near Mount Barsaya, northeast of Afrin, Syria January 22,2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
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Russia said on Monday it had invited Kurds to take part in an upcoming Syrian peace congress in Sochi, despite a Turkish offensive against Kurdish militia in northern Syria.

Together with regime backer Iran and rebel supporter Turkey, Russia – a key backer of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad – is preparing to host the January 30 talks with the aim of agreeing a new constitution for post-war Syria.

“Kurdish representatives have been included on the list of Syrians invited to participate in the Syrian National Dialogue Congress,” foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Moscow initially hoped to convene peace talks in Sochi last November but those efforts collapsed following a lack of agreement among co-sponsors.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the time fumed at the prospect of inviting the Syrian Kurdish group the PYD and its armed wing, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Without referring to Kurdish militia by name, Mr Erdogan said in November: “We cannot consider a terrorist gang with blood on their hands a legitimate actor.”

Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist group and the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state.

The Turkish military on Saturday launched a cross-border operation aiming to oust the YPG from its enclave of Afrin in northern Syria.

But Mr Lavrov said on Monday that Syrian Kurds should play a role in the “future political process”.

“This role should certainly be ensured,” he said, but added that all of Syria’s ethnic groups should respect the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Separately, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov – when asked whether the Turkish offensive would complicate the Sochi congress – declined to comment, but said that the preparations for the conference were under way.

The announcement came as Syria’s main opposition group said it would need “full and clear information” before agreeing to take part in the Black Sea peace conference next week.

“The SNC will not make any final decision regarding the Russian initiatives until it receives full and clear information from Russia,” Nasr Al Hariri, representative of the Syrian National Congress, said during a trip to Moscow.

“We want to have complete information about the participants, the agenda and the objectives” of the Sochi meetings, he said at the start of a meeting with Mr Lavrov.

“Unfortunately, for the time being, we do not have a clear picture of all that.”

The SNC has said it will attend fresh UN-hosted negotiations before the Sochi talks, which dozens of rebel factions have already rejected.

The UN-backed talks are to resume on January 25, this time in Vienna.

The Sochi meeting is part of a broader push by Moscow to start hammering out a path to a political solution to end the war and, has sparked concerns that the Kremlin is seeking to sideline the UN.

Syria’s nearly seven-year war, which began as the regime  crushed anti-government protests, has claimed more than 340,000 lives, forced millions to flee their homes and left the country in ruins.