BEIRUT (AP) — Talks are ongoing between the Syrian government in Damascus and Kurdish officials to reach a deal on how to fill the gap following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country, a Syrian Kurdish official said Saturday.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the talks' secrecy, said Syrian Kurdish officials have visited Russia which is a main backer of the Syrian government. He added that Russia supports the talks between the government and the Kurdish-led militia that control nearly a third of the country.
President Donald Trump announced in mid-December that the U.S. will withdraw all of its 2,000 forces in Syria. Trump's move has raised fears over clearing the way for a Turkish assault on Kurdish fighters in Syria who fought alongside American troops against Islamic State group extremists. Turkey considers the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders.
The main U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces has expressed concerns over the planned withdrawal as Turkey has threatened to launch a military operation against Kurdish fighters in Syria.
The Kurdish official said "discussions are ongoing and the atmosphere is positive." He said that an understanding has been reached to "face any force that wants to occupy Syria especially in the north."
The official told The Associated Press that Russia is playing a "positive role" in discussing agreements that could be reached between the Kurds and the government. He gave no further details saying that discussions are still ongoing.
"There are hopes to reach a deal that pleases both sides as we are all Syrians," he said.
Ibrahim Hamidi, a journalist who covers Syrian affairs for the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, wrote in a report published Saturday that the top commander of the YPG, Sipan Hemo, secretly visited Damascus and Moscow where he offered "a secret deal" that would include handing over border points to the Syrian government in return for accepting a Kurdish local administration with Russia as a guarantor.
The SDF, of which the YPG forms the backbone, controls areas along the border with Turkey in the north and Iraq in the northeast.
Hamidi added that the offer aims to reach "understandings to fill the gap following the American withdrawal and to cut the road for Turkish intervention."
U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, who is currently in Israel, is scheduled to later visit Turkey along with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford. In meetings with Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and other officials, they are expected to warn against an offensive targeting the Kurdish fighters in Syria.
In the northern province of Aleppo, al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee, or HTS, captured more than a dozen villages from Turkey-backed opposition fighters.
Overnight, HTS shelled western neighborhoods of the northern city Aleppo, Syria's largest, triggering Russian airstrikes on the areas recently captured by the militants, according to state media and opposition activists.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Aleppo Media Center, an activist collective, said a child and his father were killed in the Russian airstrikes.
Five days of fighting in northern Syria saw HTS defeating the Nour el-Din el-Zinki group. The Observatory said 61 HTS gunmen and 58 fighters with Nour el-Din el-Zinki and eight civilians were killed in the fighting.