SDC Mulls Discussing Russian Working Group Proposal on Syria Normalization

© AFP 2022 / STRAn image of the Syrian flag in Damascus
An image of the Syrian flag in Damascus - Sputnik International
WASHINGTON (Sputnik) - The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, is willing to discuss any proposals by Russia on Syria including establishing a working group to normalize the country, Bassam Ishak, co-chair of the council’s mission to the United States, told Sputnik.

"This is my first initial hearing about such an idea. I think we are open to discussing with the Russian officials about any proposals", Ishak said. "Russia is an important political actor in Syria that we have visited many times in Moscow".

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Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters on Thursday that he discussed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at their meeting in Moscow on Wednesday the idea of creating a working group including all interested parties that will work on the normalization in Syria after the Daesh terrorist group is eliminated.

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A high-ranking source in the Israeli government told Sputnik on Wednesday that the working group will also facilitate the withdrawal of foreign forces from Syria.

The Idlib governorate in Syria’s northwest is the last major stronghold of Daesh insurgency, according to Putin. Militants are also present on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.

Russia, along with Turkey and Iran, is a guarantor of a countrywide ceasefire in Syria, while it also provides humanitarian assistance to Syrian civilians and is actively engaged in dialogue on settlement to the Syrian crisis.

Meanwhile, the battle for the Syrian city of Baghuz is currently going slowly in order to protect hostages held by the Daesh terrorists, according to Bassam Ishak. "There is a need to protect lives of hostages that ISIS [IS][Daesh] has with them. This is why now the battle is going slow", Ishak said.

When asked about their estimates when the fight might be over, Ishak said, "Hard to assess".

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Syrian Democratic Forces Press Office chief Mustafa Bali announced in a Twitter post on Friday that the SDF group have begun a final assault on Baghuz, the last Daesh stronghold in the country.

However, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have more than a thousand of captured Daesh members, according to Bassam Ishak.

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"Before we had the final battle, there was about 800, but the number has increased. It changes every day now," Ishak said. "It used to be close to a thousand, now it's more, now it's much more". Ishak noted that Russia took back some of the detained foreign fighters.

"We wish the other European countries and other countries will do like Russia did and take back its citizens," he pointed out. Ishak said he had heard estimates that up to 10,000 Daesh fighters could still be in Syria.

"Some of them are running into Iraq, some are running into Turkey for refuge and some are going to western Syria in the desert", he explained.

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Bassam Ishak also told Sputnik that the SDC would like to cooperate with both Moscow and Washington. "We look forward to continue to cooperate with all parties — US, Russia and all the actors who are involved in the Syria question for a solution and a security arrangement that will be able to satisfy the security needs of all our neighbors", Ishak said on Friday.

He explained that Russia has been their mediator with Damascus, while the United States has been their mediator with Turkey.

"They're both doing a very unique role", Ishak stressed. "I think we continue to want to engage both sides in SDC to help, we think they're very key because there's the Assad regime on the one side, Turkey on the other side. We need to be engaged so we could arrive at the eventual political solution in Syria".

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The co-chair pointed out that the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) maintains contacts with Russia, and has visited Moscow many times.

"We're open to planned visits, but there should be of course preparation so that these visits will be successful", he added.

The United States and its allies have repeatedly stated that they do not consider the Syrian settlement possible if President Bashar Assad stays in power. Russia has supported the legitimate Syrian government, repeatedly stressing that only the Syrian people should decide the fate of Assad. The US-led coalition of more than 70 members has been conducting military operations against the Daesh terrorist group in Syria and Iraq since September 2014. The coalition’s activities in Syria are authorized neither by the Syrian government nor by the UN Security Council.

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US President Donald Trump surprised his allies in December by announcing a prompt withdrawal of 2,000 troops from Syria.

Ishak said that Trump’s announcement did not mean an immediate pullout. "We all know and the US knows that you cannot just leave and have a void in the region. You can’t just say, ‘I won,’ and leave because you won militarily. Then, you win militarily for a purpose, for a political purpose. So you need to follow up, you can’t just withdraw", he explained.

"I think now the reality is coming to people that the US is not just going to have a hasty withdrawal but it's going to be a planned withdrawal", he added.

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Ishak also noted that following the troop pullout decision, contacts between the Syrian Democratic Council and Washington have continued.

"We had high level discussions here in Washington, also US officials like Ambassador Jeffrey visits Ankara and try to mitigate, so this is still going on. It hasn't stopped, we are still very much engaged in discussions with the US side about the situation", he said.

The Syrian Democratic Council respects the United States’ decision to pull out its troops from Syria and hopes that Turkey and Iran would also leave the Arab country, Ishak told Sputnik.

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"We knew all along the US would withdraw its forces and actually we respect that", Ishak said Friday. "The US is the only party who has forces in Syria and who has declared that it wants to withdraw them. This is something we respect. We hope Turkey will do the same and Iran will do the same".

Moreover, a decision to keep some US forces in Syria is useful because Syrian Democratic Forces still need air cover, Bassam Ishak explained Friday.

"We see this as positive because it's too early for US to withdraw militarily and we still need air coverage for SDF. So this is why we think it's positive for the time being to keep American and European troops in Syria", Ishak said. Earlier in February, the Arab-Kurdish units of the SDF handed over another 130 IS militants to the Iraqi security agencies. The handoff puts the total number handed over to Iraq at 280.

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Meanwhile, Turkey could have tried to convince UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen not to engage with the SDC, Bassam Ishak suggested Friday.

"He's [Pedersen] not talking with us. We don't know the reason", Ishak said when asked about the UN special envoy to Syria who replaced Staffan de Mistura in January. "Maybe he is taking into consideration Turkey's position that doesn't want us at the table, doesn't want us to be included".

However, members of the SDC in a congratulatory letter to Pedersen expressed their readiness to meet. "We are waiting for an answer and we are hoping that it will be a positive answer", Ishak said. "We look forward to engaging with him".

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The new UN envoy has already visited Moscow, Damascus and Riyadh. Pedersen told the UN Security Council on Thursday that he would travel to Syria in a few weeks and will visit Washington next week.

Over the course of the armed conflict in Syria, the United Nations has been providing humanitarian aid to Syria and engaged in talks both with the Syrian government and the opposition Syrian Negotiation Committee. In 2017, several rounds of negotiations on the Syrian settlement were held in Geneva under the auspices of the organization, however, the two sides to the conflict did not talk directly to each other. The United Nations has been also helping to draft the list of the Syrian constitutional committee members.

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Daesh (also known as IS/ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State) is a terrorist group banned in Russia and many other countries.

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