Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Saturday the United States would start to develop contingency plans with its Turkish allies in the event that the embattled Syrian regime collapses.
Her announcement in Istanbul came 17 months into an escalating crisis that has claimed more than 17,000 lives and forced an estimated 150,000 refugees to flee into neighboring nations, including Turkey, which is hosting 50,000 people.
"There is a very clear understanding about the need to end this conflict quickly, but not doing it in a way that produces even more deaths, injuries and destruction," Clinton said after talks with her Turkish counterpart, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
Clinton said the two countries have agreed to set up a working group to help coordinate their response to the crisis going forward.
"We have been closely coordinating over the course of this conflict, 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. "Certainly our two ministries are coordinating much of it, but our intelligence services, our military, have very important responsibilities and roles to play."
Turkey, which is in the process of building four more refugee camps, has long been calling for more U.S. support.
"We would like to see more support from the U.S. on Syria," said a senior Turkish government official. "Sometimes we feel very much alone."
He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
Turkey also has hosted Syrian groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad's regime and is a vital transport route for opposition fighters and weapons into Syria.
After a first round of discussions between Clinton and Davutoglu,Turkish officials said Washington was finally recognizing the gravity of the situation.
"I think they are now understanding," said an official from Turkey's foreign ministry, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official said Clinton's team specifically requested Saturday's talks focus on the Syria crisis.
"They want to be more proactive, more engaged, more included," the Turkish diplomat said.
Clinton highlighted three areas of concern as fighting rages within Syria: massive displacement and migration of affected Syrians, preventing chaos in a power vacuum and checking the threat of chemical weapons.
"Our goal, No. 1, is to hasten the end of the bloodshed and the Assad regime. That is our strategic goal, and we have to analyze everything against that goal," Clinton said.
Clinton announced an extra $5 million in aid for the United Nations refugee agency. Washington was already providing $25 million in non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition, including communications equipment.
Davutoglu raised concerns about the rise of regional terrorist groups amid instability, specifically the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rebels who have fought a cross-border guerrilla war against the Turkish state for more than a quarter century.
In recent weeks, PKK members have raised the movement's flag over several ethnic Kurdish communities along Syria's border with Turkey, triggering alarms in Ankara.
"Yes, we worry about terrorists, PKK, al Qaeda and others taking advantage of the legitimate fight of the Syrian people for their freedom, to use Syria to promote their own agendas, and even to perhaps find footholds to launch attacks against others," Clinton said.
One analyst said Clinton's meeting with Turkish officials "had to do with implications of Aleppo operations" and the possibility of an extended influx of refugees from Aleppo into Turkey.
"But more importantly, there is essentially a pocket of territory north of Aleppo that is outside regime control," said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"If the opposition declares it liberated territory, Turkey and the U.S. will be under pressure to set up a safe zone in one way or another," he said.
Clinton did not specifically address the issue of a safe zone or a no-fly zone in Turkey, but she said that any action taken should not catalyze more brutality.
"It's 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.
In Turkey, Clinton also met with Syrian opposition activists whom she described as being committed to building a pluralistic, democratic and inclusive society.