U.S. envoy visits Kurdish-held northern Syria

By Tom Perry and Arshad Mohammed BEIRUT/ROME (Reuters) - A U.S. envoy has visited Kurdish-controlled northern Syria in what appeared to be the first declared trip to Syrian territory by an Obama administration official in three years. The U.S. envoy to the coalition against Islamic State, Brett McGurk, said his weekend trip aimed to review the fight against the jihadist group that controls swathes of Syria and Iraq. He also said that it was long-planned and not "in any way" related to Syria peace talks in Geneva that are seeking to end a nearly five-year civil war that has killed at least 250,000 people and driven more than 10 million people from their homes. The Syrian Kurds have established control over wide areas of northern Syria since the country erupted into civil war in 2011, and their YPG militia has become a major partner in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State. The trip, which U.S. officials said appeared to be the first of its kind to northern Syria since 2013, may anger neighbouring Turkey, which is alarmed by the growing sway of Syrian Kurds for fear it could fuel separatism among its own Kurdish population. It follows the exclusion of the main Syrian Kurdish party, the PYD, from Syria peace talks, in line with Turkish wishes. The U.S. envoy told reporters the peace talks came up during his two-day visit, during which he discussed the importance of "an inclusive process" to achieve a unified, a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian Syria where the rights of all are protected. During the visit, McGurk said he met an array of officials, including Arab, Kurdish, Christian, Turkmen representatives. There has been some speculation that McGurk's visit, and a separate telephone call by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken to PYD leader Saleh Muslim, may have aimed to assuage Kurdish unhappiness at their exclusion from the Geneva talks. CEMETERY VISIT McGurk posted photos of the trip on his Twitter feed, including a shot of a cemetery where he said he "paid respects to over 1,000 Kurdish martyrs" from the battle of Kobani waged by the YPG, with U.S.-led air support, against Islamic State. A Syrian Kurdish official said McGurk landed at a Kurdish-controlled airport he said was being used by U.S. military helicopters for logistics and deliveries. The airport at Rmeilan was currently under construction, added the source, and supplies are brought in "according to need". U.S. officials said they were all but certain McGurk's trip was the first declared visit to Syria by an Obama administration official since former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford briefly crossed into northern Syria in May 2013. The U.S. embassy in Damascus was closed in 2012 but Ford kept his title. The United States has supported the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, who it says has lost the legitimacy to rule, and has rejected cooperation with the Syrian government in the fight against Islamic State. U.S. military ties with the Syrian Kurds have grown deeper despite the concerns of NATO ally Turkey, which views the Syrian Kurdish PYD party as a terrorist group because of its links to the PKK, which is waging an insurgency in Turkey. McGurk, who said he was accompanied by U.S. Defense Department officials, was received by Kurdish officials, including the prime minister of one of three autonomous regions, or cantons, the Syrian Kurds have set up in northern Syria. In a statement posted on YouTube, Akram Hasso, head of the Kurdish-led administration of Jazeera canton, said McGurk's delegation was 17 strong and included representatives of France and Britain. PYD leader Saleh Muslim played down the visit's political significance. "He is a military man, a man concerned with fighting terrorism more than politics," Muslim told Reuters. But "it may have an indirect political impact", he added. (Writing by Tom Perry and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Alison Williams)