ANKARA — Turkish and U.S. officials on Thursday held their first “operational planning” meeting aimed at bringing about the end of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime.
The meeting was expected to coordinate military, intelligence and political responses to the crisis in Syria. where a deadly crackdown on peaceful protests that began in March 2011 has, according to activists, claimed more than 23,000 lives.
The officials were also due to discuss contingency plans in the case of potential threats that could include a chemical attack by Assad’s regime, which Washington has said would be a “red line.”
Turkish foreign ministry deputy undersecretary Halit Cevik and U.S. Ambassador Elisabeth Jones led the delegations, which were made up of intelligence agents, military officials and diplomats at the Ankara meeting, a foreign ministry source said.
The meeting lasted for eight hours, but no press statement was issued after the closed-door talks.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, had announced their plans for such a mechanism to hasten the end of Assad’s regime on August 11.
Thursday’s meeting came just days after U.S. President Barack Obama warned Syria that any movement or use of its chemical weapons would be a “red line” that would change his perspective on how to respond to the conflict.
A chemical attack would also trigger a refugee influx to neighboring countries, including Turkey, which is already hosting more than 70,000 Syrians, as well as the rebel leadership.
On Monday, Davutoglu said Turkey could handle no more than 100,000 Syrian refugees. Earlier, he proposed setting up a U.N. buffer zone inside Syria to shelter them.
The growing flow of refugees amid fierce fighting in the northern city of Aleppo between regime forces and rebels has raised fears of a repeat of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when half a million Iraqi Kurds massed along the common border.
The U.N. Security Council will debate the humanitarian situation and the refugee crisis in Syria on August 30 at a ministerial level meeting.
U.N. emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos said Wednesday, however, that despite the increasingly precarious humanitarian situation, U.N. Security Council divisions would prevent the creation of any safe havens in Syria.
The Security Council has not yet acted decisively to try to end the Syrian conflict, hampered by rifts between the West and Syria’s traditional allies, China and Russia, particularly over Assad’s fate.
The threat of armed groups, including the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and al-Qaida, which could exploit a power vacuum in Syria, was also expected to be high on the agenda of the Ankara meeting.
In Istanbul, Clinton had said she shared “Turkey’s determination that Syria must not become a haven for PKK terrorists whether now or after the departure of the Assad regime.”
The growing presence in northern Syria of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), affiliated with the PKK and blacklisted as a terrorist organization by Turkey and the U.S., has alarmed Turkey, which has lined its border with tanks and missile launchers.
Turkish officials fear the chaos in Syria would be used by Kurdish fighters, who have recently intensified their attacks inside the country, also targeting civilians.