Turkish and US officials Thursday began their first “operational planning” meeting aimed at bringing about the end of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime.
The meeting is 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 are also due to discuss contingency plans in the case of potential threats including a chemical attack by the regime in Damascus which Washington has called a “red line”.
Turkish Foreign Ministry deputy under-secretary Halit Cevik and US ambassador Elisabeth Jones are leading the delegations made up of intelligence agents, military officials and diplomats at the meeting in Ankara, a Foreign Ministry source told AFP.
US 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 President Bashar al-Assad’s regime on August 11.
Thursday’s meeting came just days after US President Barack Obama warned Syria that any movement or usage 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.
On Monday, Davutoglu said Turkey can handle no more than 100,000 Syrian refugees and has proposed setting up a UN buffer zone inside Syria to shelter them.
The exodus of refugees to Turkey has intensified recently as a result of a Syrian army offensive and fighting in the northern city of Aleppo between regime forces and rebels.
The growing flow of refugees has raised fears of a repeat of the 1991 Gulf War, when half a million Iraqi Kurds massed along the common border.
The threat of armed groupsl, including the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Al-Qaeda, is also expected to figure 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.”