– Syrian Kurds say they will declare federal region in Syria
– Russia withdraws almost half of Syria strike force
– UN envoy to meet pro-Russia Syrian opposition group at talks
– Kerry, Putin to discuss Syria as Russia seeks to bolster influence
– Denmark’s TV2 channel opens office in Syrian capital

Syrian Kurds say they will declare federal region in Syria

The main Syrian Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), announced plans Wednesday to declare a federal region in northern Syria, a model it hopes can be applied to the entire country. The idea was promptly dismissed by Turkey and also the Syrian government team at UN-brokered peace talks underway in Geneva. A Turkish foreign ministry official says his country rejects any moves that would compromise Syria’s national unity and considers the territorial integrity of Syria as “essential,” adding that it is 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.” Nawaf Khalil of the PYD said his party is not lobbying for a Kurdish-only region but an all-inclusive area that would include representation for Turkmen, Arabs, and Kurds in northern Syria. [AP, Reuters, AFP, Daily Sabah, ANF, 3/16/2016]

Russia withdraws almost half of Syria strike force
Just under half of Russia’s fixed-wing strike force based in Syria has flown out of the country in the past two days. Analysis of satellite imagery, footage of Russian air strikes, and defense ministry statements have previously suggested that Russia kept around 36 military jets at its Hemeimim base in Syria’s Latakia province. Analysis of state TV footage shows at least 15 of those planes have taken off for Russia in the past two days. Movements of the aircraft could not be independently verified, and it cannot be determined if other aircraft were flying in to Syria to replace those that left. Pentagon officials said they had seen evidence of fewer than 10 Russian aircraft leaving Syria on Tuesday, and no sign of troop withdrawals. Meanwhile, Iran and Saudi Foreign Ministers and the Arab League have all agreed that Russia’s decision to withdraw its forces from Syria is a “a positive sign.” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will ask Russia on Wednesday to ensure that its partial pullout from Syria does not embolden Iranian and Hezbollah forces there, an Israeli official said. Hezbollah has denied reports about the withdrawal of its fighters from Syria. [Reuters, 3/16/2016]

UN envoy to meet pro-Russia Syrian opposition group at talks
On Wednesday, a Syrian opposition group close to Russia and tolerated by Damascus will meet UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura at peace talks in Geneva, a delegation member said. “We received an invitation to take part in the Geneva talks,” said Fateh Jamous, a member of the Moscow Group, which includes former Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil who is considered a moderate opposition leader by the regime. “Our invitation is proof that the talks have entered a new, more serious stage,” Jamous said. The Saudi-based High Negotiations Committee (HNC) has insisted that it be considered the only representative of Syria’s opposition at the talks. HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet told AFP on Tuesday that expanding the number of opposition delegations was “unacceptable.” [AFP, 3/16/2016]

Kerry, Putin to discuss Syria as Russia seeks to bolster influence
Secretary of State John Kerry said he would travel to Moscow next week to discuss a political solution to Syria’s five-year war, as the United States and key players strain to figure out how Russia’s partial military withdrawal changes the dynamics of the conflict and nascent peace talks. “We have reached a very important phase in this process, “ Kerry said. [WSJ, 3/16/2016]

Denmark’s TV2 channel opens office in Syrian capital
Denmark’s TV2 broadcaster says it has opened an office in the Syrian capital, Damascus, claiming to be the only western media to do so. Mikkel Hertz, news director of the channel based in Odense, in central Denmark, says it was “a unique opportunity” that the channel obtained a permanent visa in Syria after “a long process,” though he did not elaborate. Longtime war correspondent Rasmus Tantholdt says it is “a better starting point for filtering out the propaganda emanating from all the warring parties.” Heryz says the office opened on Wednesday on the 15th floor of a high-rise “in a relatively peaceful area in the Syrian capital.” The office is manned by Tantholdt, a cameraman, and a producer. [AFP, NYT, 3/16/2016]