bashar al-assad.jpg
Photograph: EPA/SANA HANDOUT

Hopes for Syria’s imminent direct talks sank Wednesday when the government ruled out face-to-face negotiations, unless the opposition chief negotiator apologizes for demanding the execution of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"We will not have direct talks unless that person apologizes for the statements he made previously," al-Assad's chief negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari said in Geneva.

Mohammed Aloush of the radical Islamist Jaish al-Islam rebels had called for al-Assad's death on Monday, when the United Nations restarted peace talks by shuttling between regime and opposition negotiators.

"Bashar must be put on trial and executed for his crimes against the Syrian people," Alloush told dpa.

Meanwhile, a major Syrian Kurdish faction, excluded from the Geneva talks, was reportedly preparing to declare a federal system of administration in the country’s north, a further step towards total autonomy in the region and a move that could rile neighbour Turkey.

The move has angered al-Jaafari. "What we are talking about here is how to keep the unity of Syria," he said.

“Betting on creating any kind of divisions among the Syrians will be a total failure.”

The idea also drew objection from Abdel-Hakim Bashar, a Kurdish member of the main Syrian opposition grouping, the Higher Negotiations Commission.

"I consider this move a political adventure. Nothing can be resolved away from the Syrian people and Syrian constitution,” Bashar, a member of the opposition team in Geneva, told dpa. ”The Kurdish question can only be solved within a Syrian consensus.”

About 200 representatives from various ethnic and religious groups - together representing the main Syrian Kurdish faction and its allies - were gathered Wednesday in Hassakeh province in north-eastern Syria for a convention on a "democratic federation" in the territory, the pro-Kurdish Hawar news agency reported.

The largest faction, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), declared autonomy in late 2013 for the three cantons it dominates - Jazira, Kobane and Efrin.

The first two cantons, in the east and centre of northern Syria, have since been physically connected, after territory was seized from Islamic State with the help of US airstrikes.

Efrin remains an enclave, with Islamic State still controlling territory separating it from the others, though Islamic State is ceding ground in the area to an ongoing offensive.

The main Kurdish militia, the YPG, is the major ally on the ground in Syria helping the United States push back Islamic State.

The expected announcement comes just ahead of the Newroz festival, a spring celebration which also has elements of mythical deliverance.

But the move could further expose fault lines in the region.

Turkey has been growing increasingly alarmed by the independent strides of Syrian Kurds, as it fights Kurdish rebels on its own territory pushing for greater autonomy and rights for the minority group.

Many Syrian Arab rebels have also opposed the moves by the Kurds for more self-governance, highlighting ethnic and religious fault lines.

The Kurdish militia has struggled to convince many Arabs to live in zones it takes from Islamic State, though at the same time the cantons have been safe havens for an estimated tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing clashes.

Kurds are estimated to be Syria’s biggest ethnic minority, making up around 10-15 per cent of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million.

Wednesday marks also the anniversary of the 1988 chemical weapons attack by Saddam Hussein's forces in Iraq, which killed thousands of Kurds in Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan.

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