– Syrian Kurds declare federal region amid wide criticism
– Kurdish group claims responsibility for second Ankara attack
– Russia to complete Syria pullout within days
– Aid agencies call for full access in Syria as conflict enters sixth year
– Japanese journalist Junpei Yasuda missing in Syria, surfaces in video
– EU leaders push on with contested Turkey migrant plan

Syrian Kurds declare federal region amid wide criticism
Syria’s three Kurdish-controlled autonomous regions voted on Thursday to approve the establishment of a federal system in the north of the country, defying warnings from Damascus and neighboring Turkey against any such unilateral move. Democratic Union Party (PYD) official Nawaf Khalil said in a statement that participants in the Rmeilan conference meeting have approved a “democratic federal system for Rojava-Northern Syria.” Voting on the federal model was delayed because of demands from local Arab and Assyrian communities for reassurances that it would not mean separation from Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). The Syrian government and opposition immediately rejected the vote and said it had no legal or political impact. The Syrian Foreign Ministry described it as “unconstitutional and worthless,” warning against any attempt to encroach upon Syria’s territorial integrity. Turkey also opposed any unilateral steps to create new structures in Syria on an ethnic basis, a senior Turkish official. The United States warned Wednesday that it would not recognize an attempt by Kurdish groups to form an autonomous federal region. The State Department said Wednesday that any new federal model would have to emerge from peace talks. [AP, AFP, Reuters, WSJ, BBC, 3/17/2016]

Kurdish group claims responsibility for second Ankara attack
A Kurdish militant group on Thursday claimed responsibility for a suicide car-bomb attack in the Turkish capital which killed 37 people. In a statement posted on its website, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons said the attack in Ankara was in “revenge” for Turkish military operations against Kurdish rebels in the southeast. The group said the attack was led by Seher Cagla Demir, code name Doga Jiyan, described as the first female suicide bomber in its ranks. “We claim the operation of March 13, 2016 … in the heart of the Republic of Turkey,” the statement said. The Turkey-based group is considered an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and has carried out several attacks, including one in Ankara in February that killed 29 people. [AP, WSJ, 3/17/2016]

Russia to complete Syria pullout within days
Russia will complete the withdrawal of the bulk of its forces from Syria before the end of the week, a top Russian general suggested in an interview published Thursday. “I think this will be over very quickly. … Within two-three days we will complete the task,” Viktor Bondarev, the commander of the Russian Air Force said. Putin stressed the Kremlin could scale up its presence again within hours and would continue to carry out air strikes there if needed. European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker said on Thursday that Russia’s military pullout from Syria is welcome and could help slow the flood of refugees. [AFP, Reuters, WSJ, Guardian, 3/17/2016]

Aid agencies call for full access in Syria as conflict enters sixth year
Humanitarian agencies demanded unconditional access to all communities in Syria as Russia continued on Wednesday to withdraw its military forces from the country. A joint statement signed by 102 humanitarian organizations urged all warring parties that humanitarian access must “include access to all people in need by whatever routes necessary.” The statement, signed by the UN children’s agency UNICEF, Oxfam, and others, noted “encouraging signs of progress” in Syria with the cessation of hostilities, allowing humanitarian agencies to “rush more food and other relief to communities desperate for help.” But access has to go beyond a temporary lifting of sieges and checkpoints, they said, saying there was an urgent need for a national immunization campaign for children. [Reuters, 3/17/2016]

Japanese journalist Junpei Yasuda missing in Syria, surfaces in video
A Japanese journalist believed to have been captured by militants in Syria last year appeared in a video posted online on Thursday. He delivered an emotional message to his family but revealed little about his captors’ demands or intentions. “I want to hug you, I want to talk with you, but I can’t anymore,” said Junpei Yasuda in the video. It was the first direct public evidence of his fate since he disappeared in the summer after telling associates that he was headed to Syria to cover the civil war there. Yasuda is believed to be held by the Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front that has taken a number of foreigners, including journalists. Some have been released, reportedly in exchange for ransoms. Yasuda makes no reference to his captors in the video. After identifying himself, he says it is his birthday, March 16, which suggests the video was recorded on Wednesday. [Reuters, AFP, NYT, BBC, 3/17/2016]

EU leaders push on with contested Turkey migrant plan
EU authorities sought on Wednesday to alter the terms of a provisional agreement brokered by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to curb the flow of migrants and refugees streaming into Europe through Turkey. The revised proposals were put forward by President of the European Council Donald Tusk on the eve of a two-day meeting that was supposed to be the deadline for signing a deal with Turkey to ease the bloc’s migration crisis. Tusk’s revised proposals, which were discussed by representatives of the union’s governments on Wednesday, kept much of the plan put forward by Merkel intact. But Tusk, who represents the bloc’s 28 national leaders, backed important modifications in a bid to tamp down a wave of complaints from human rights groups about the risk of forcible returns of Syrians as a result of that arrangement. [NYT, Al Jazeera, Reuters, 3/17/2016]