ISTANBUL // The United States and Turkey said yesterday they are working on plans for possible intervention in Syria should Bashar Al Assad's regime use chemical weapons.
"We have been closely coordinating over the course of this conflict," Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, told reporters in Istanbul after talks with her Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu. "But now we need to get into the real details of such operational planning and it needs to be across both of our governments."
She said the US and Turkey had decided to set up a working group of representatives from the two foreign ministries as well as from the intelligence services and the military of both countries. Responding to a question, Ms Clinton confirmed that the establishment of safe havens for refugees and a no-fly-zone for government aircraft inside Syria were being looked at.
"It is one thing to talk about all kinds of potential actions, but you cannot make reasoned decisions without doing intense analysis and operational planning," she said. "We want to hasten the end of the bloodshed and of the Assad regime, that is our strategic goal," Ms Clinton added.
Mr Davutoglu said both countries wanted to be prepared "for negative scenarios" triggered by the conflict in Syria, where a clampdown on a 17-month-old uprising against the Al Assad government has killed more than 20,000 people.
Both ministers cited possible use of chemical weapons by the Al Assad regime as a factor that could trigger a cross-border intervention. Mr Davutoglu added that a sudden surge of refugee numbers in Turkey, where 55,000 Syrians have found shelter in camps along the border, and a threat to Turkey posed by Kurdish rebels in northern Syria, could also make action necessary.
"We need to take joint efforts to prevent a power vacuum," he said in reference to activities of Kurdish rebels in northern Syria.
Ankara has said that rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a militant group fighting for Kurdish self-rule since 1984, are using the chaos in Syria to set up a presence near the border with Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, has said Turkey will not hesitate to strike PKK installations in Syria if they are seen as a threat.
The fact that US and Turkish planners will be looking at issues such as no-fly-zones and safe havens shows that both countries are anxious to avoid any impression of unilateral action.
Mehmet Sahin, a Middle East specialist at Ankara's Gazi University, noted that both sides were keen to avoid mistakes and miscalculations that marred Turkish-US ties during the war in Iraq in 2003. Back then, relations suffered when Turkey refused to grant US troops permission to attack Iraq from Turkish territory and the US chose Iraq's Kurds as key allies despite Turkish concerns of the possible emergence of a Kurdish state.
"Both the US and Turkey want to keep Syria together and want state structures there to survive" a fall of the Al Assad regime, Mr Sahin said.
Ms Clinton, who met Syrian refugees and activists from Syria in Istanbul yesterday, said the US was increasing its humanitarian and non-lethal aid to Syrian refugees and the opposition. She said she heard "concerns about the lack of unity of the outside opposition".
Both the US and Turkey have their doubts about the efficiency and political aims of the fractured opposition, and neither the US nor Turkey have been willing to consider demands from the opposition to send arms to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main rebel force in Syria.
Ms Clinton also said new sanctions by the US against Syria were intended to "expose and disrupt" links between Iran, the Lebanon-based Hizbollah movement and Syria.
On Friday, Washington announced sanctions against Syrian state oil company Sytrol for trading with Iran, in a bid to starve the regimes in both Tehran and Damascus of much-needed revenue and oil respectively.
The US secretary of state also said the US would support Turkey against PKK activities in Syria. "We share Turkey's determination that Syria must not become a haven for PKK terrorists, now or after the departure of the Assad regime," she said.
But not everyone in Turkey is convinced that the US und Turkey are in complete agreement about Syria's future. Deniz Baykal, a prominent legislator and former opposition leader in Ankara, said Turkey's insistence that a cross-border intervention in Syria could become necessary could pose problems in the future.
"The USA does not want us to launch military activities on the border," Mr Baykal told Turkish news channel Haberturk on Friday. He said Washington had expressed concerns about a further militarisation of the Syrian conflict in direct response to a statement by Mr Erdogan threatening military strikes in Syria.