Damascus // The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, expressed concern on Monday over Iraq's extended political crisis. At a meeting in Syria's capital, the two leaders also discussed the deadlocked Middle East peace negotiations and efforts to curb the Kurdish Workers' Party, known as the PKK, a separatist movement that is fighting a guerilla war against Ankara.
Mr Assad said priority had been given to Iraq and the failure of political factions there to agree on a new government more than seven months after the elections. "It's natural for the countries neighbouring Iraq to be concerned and at the same time hopeful concerning any change taking place in Iraq because it affects us negatively or positively according to the situation in Iraq, on the political or security levels," he said.
"To discuss this topic does not mean that we, as Iraq's neighbouring countries, Syria, Turkey or others, are speaking on behalf of the Iraqis. The work and decision remain for the Iraqis." Recent developments appear to have put Nouri al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, on course for another term of office, but at the risk of excluding the country's powerful Sunni Arab minority.
Any government that does not include the Sunnis is certain to face a continued insurgency, something Damascus and Ankara have warned against. They have urged the Iraqis to form a national unity administration representing all factions.
Syria and Turkey have become close allies in recent years, developing strong economic and political links. Damascus views Ankara as a trusted mediator in efforts to end Syria's long war with Israel. The United States, which brokered a new round of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority last month - currently stalled over illegal settlement construction - has been pushing for Syria to enter into negotiations as part of a drive to bring about a comprehensive regional peace.
Despite expressing scepticism about the talks, Damascus has said it is open to a resumption of indirect contacts with Israel, providing Turkey is given a role. Ankara acted as middleman in the last set of mediated discussions between the nations, which broke down in 2008 with the start of Israel's attack on the Gaza Strip.
Turkey has said it would be willing to play the go-between again. Syrian analysts also said the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which is considered a terrorist organisation by the US and EU, was high on the leaders' agenda yesterday, with Mr Erdogan seeking Syrian aid in weakening the group.
Key members, including Fahman Hussein, a senior official in the PKK's military wing, are Syrians, together with an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 PKK fighters, drawn from Syria's large Kurdish minority. "The [Turks] want to convince Syria to issue a pardon to these militants if they promise to put down their weapons," said a Syrian political analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
"At the moment there are arrest warrants out on them so they will not return to Syria. If they are pardoned, the theory is that they will be given a route to back out of the war." Turkey has staged unilateral military incursions into Iraq to strike the PKK in its mountain strongholds, to the chagrin of Baghdad, but has not taken similar action in Syria, enjoying close co-operation with Damascus in its campaign against the militants.
As many as 400 PKK members were arrested and 11 fighters killed in a series of Turkish-Syrian operations during the summer in north-eastern Syria, according to the Turkish state-run Anatolian News Agency. The arrests were never confirmed by Syrian sources, with the authorities routinely refusing to comment on such matters.
Speaking to reporters after their meeting, Mr al Assad promised Damascus would provide strong support to Turkey in its campaign against the PKK, while Mr Erdogan said the two countries would work together on the matter.