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Turkey, U.S. agree to joint contingency planning for collapse of Assad regime

The United States and Turkey on Saturday took a half step toward intervention in Syria, announcing that the two governments jointly would begin “in depth analysis and operational planning” for a possible no-fly zone.

The countries also will begin drafting plans for how to respond if President Bashar Assad’s regime carries out wide-scale massacres or uses chemical weapons as it battles insurgents seeking its overthrow.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the steps early in a day of hurriedly called talks with top Turkish leaders.

Clinton asked to see top officials here while touring Africa last week, as Syrian rebels battled to seize parts of Aleppo, the country’s most populous city, against a fierce government counterattack that included jets, helicopter and artillery bombardments. Reports from Aleppo last week indicated that the rebels had withdrawn from many of their forward positions after they ran low on ammunition.

Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, told reporters that the fighting in Aleppo had raised concerns about the possibility of what he called “a gigantic wave of migration” as the violence increases.

Jordan now has between 100,000 and 120,000 Syrian refugees, Turkish officials said. Some 53,000 Syrians have taken shelter in refugee camps in Turkey, with 2,000 more arriving each day. Some 3,500 Syrians are now waiting across the border until Turkey can establish new tent cities to accommodate them, Turkish officials said.

The numbers are still relatively low, something analysts say may reflect efforts by the Syrian government to discourage flight by mining borders, but Turks fear the situation could suddenly worsen.

Turkey’s military, one of the biggest in NATO, is capable of establishing a buffer zone inside Syria, but Ankara is reluctant to act in the face of a bitterly divided U.N. Security Council or without the all-out backing of the Obama administration, which has hesitated to support calls for a no-fly zone or the provision of heavy weapons to the armed opposition.

For Turkey, Clinton’s visit comes very late in the Syrian crisis, which began 17 months ago. Turkish officials have cautioned the administration that if plans are not put in place rapidly, there is the possibility of a major humanitarian crisis, perhaps in the final weeks before the U.S. election, an official here said.

Clinton, who also met President Abdullah Guel and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, gave strong backing to Turkey in its battle against the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, which in mid-July seized territory in southeastern Turkey and has launched several other attacks on Turkish police and military.

The other recent development that could lead to a wider conflagration is Assad’s decision to turn over nearly all of the Kurdish part of Syria to a Kurdish militia closely aligned with the PKK.

Clinton said the United States shared Turkey’s “determination that that Syria must not become a haven for PKK terrorists, whether now or after the departure of the Assad regime.”