ISTANBUL Turkish newspapers said on Saturday Ankara had contingency plans to create no-fly or buffer zones to protect civilians in neighboring Syria from security forces there if the bloodshed worsens.
Turkey opposes unilateral steps or intervention aimed at "regime change" in Syria, the reports said, but it has not ruled out the possibility of more extensive military action if security forces began committing large-scale massacres.
The reports, based on a briefing by Turkish officials to selected journalists, came on the day of an Arab League deadline for President Bashar al-Assad's government to end its repression of anti-government unrest and comply with a peace plan.
"It's almost certain that Bashar al-Assad's regime is going down, all the assessments are made based on this assumption. Foreign Ministry sources say that the sooner the regime goes down, the better for Turkey," columnist Sedat Ergin wrote in Hurriyet newspaper.
"It is out of the question that Turkey carries out a military intervention to change the regime. However, it takes a flexible stance on opposition groups running activities in Turkey."
Several thousand Syrians have fled to Turkey in the wake of the repression launched after pro-democracy protests erupted in March. Among them were soldiers who say they deserted rather than shoot their own people, and are now part of the armed resistance against Assad's forces.
Turkey, along with other powers, fear that if Syria slips into civil war it would ignite sectarian and ethnic conflict that could spread elsewhere in the region.
Ruled by the Assad family for more than 40 years, Syria's power circle is based around the Baath party and members of the minority Alawite sect to which the Assad family belong.
The Radikal newspaper's columnist Murat Yetkin quoted one of the Turkish officials saying: "We believe that with each day that passes under the Assad regime, the threat to stability increases. We believe stability in Syria and in the region will only be possible again under a democratic government."
The Arab League, and non-Arab Turkey, have threatened economic sanctions unless bloodshed stops. And Turkish officials told the journalists they expected Assad's government to implode under popular pressure.
Turkey wants to avoid a massive influx of people across the border, having been inundated by 500,000 people from Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War.
Radikal's Yetkin said the Turkish military could establish a buffer zone if the Syrian army advanced on a city, like Aleppo, close to the Turkish border.
Columnist Asli Aydintasbas of Milliyet newspaper wrote: "Foreign ministry sources added that Turkey could set up a no-fly buffer zone within Syria if Syrians fleeing the army create a mass wave of migration to Turkey.
"A more extensive military intervention could come on the table only if Syrian regime starts a large-scale massacre in a big city such as Aleppo or Damascus," Aydintasbas added.
"Ankara could take a role in a military intervention against Syria only with the international community and following a U.N. Security Council decision."
Having once cultivated Assad's friendship, Turkey turned sharply critical during the eight-month-old uprising, as Damascus repeatedly ignored advice to end the violence and make reforms demanded by the people.
Attacks on their diplomatic missions in Damascus last weekend, prompted non-Arab Turkey and Arab governments to escalate pressure on Assad.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday Syria was responsible for the breakdown in the relationship.
"Unfortunately, the Syrian regime was reluctant and insincere in carrying out reforms it had promised to. Furthermore, they wanted to quash the opposition through inhumane methods, by shedding blood," he told a business forum.
"If there's a policy change, it's not Turkey's but Syria's change of policy. Syria has not kept the promises it made, neither to the Arab League nor the world," he said. "Its actions have not been sincere and trustworthy."
(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay; editing by Andrew Roche)