Recep Tayyip Erdogan

ISTANBUL — A year of sanctions, diplomacy and harsh rhetoric failed to stop Syria’s bloody crackdown and oust President Bashar Assad. With frustration running high, Turkey and other countries that have staked moral credibility on ending the violence are increasingly looking at intervention on Syrian soil, a strategy they have so far avoided for lack of international consensus and fears it could widen the conflict.

Diplomacy has not yet run its course, but more treacherous options, including aid to Syrian rebels, are likely to come up at a meeting of dozens of countries that oppose Assad, including the United States and its European and Arab partners, in Istanbul on April 1.

One prominent option floated by Turkey is a “buffer zone” on the Turkish-Syrian border, which could amount to a foreign military occupation, intent on regime change even if the aim is humanitarian in name. The risks of such an endeavor in a combustible region are evident in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon decades ago and Syria’s own military presence in Lebanon until 2005.

Yet, comparisons with international hesitation over the Balkans bloodshed in the 1990s make it ever harder to engage in seemingly endless, and fruitless, diplomacy.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed Syria with U.S. President Barack Obama on Sunday at a nuclear security conference in South Korea, and said it was not possible to tolerate events there. Earlier, Erdogan was asked by reporters on his plane whether a safe zone inside Syria was on the agenda.

“Studies are under way,” Erdogan said. “It would depend on developments. The ‘right to protection’ may be put into use, according to international rules. We are trying to find a solution by engaging Russia, China and Iran.”

Erdogan predicted that “everything could change” if those countries withdraw their support for Syria, and he accused Assad of reviving ties with and “protecting” rebels of the PKK, a Turkish Kurd group at war with the Turkish state. Turkey already hosts some 17,000 Syrian refugees, and casting the Syrian crisis in terms of Turkey’s national security strengthens the case for intervention.

U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan was discussing Syria on Sunday in Russia, which vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at pressuring Assad but has shown increasing impatience with him. His next stop is Beijing, which also blocked U.N. action.

Annan’s plan, endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, includes a cease-fire by Syrian forces, a daily two-hour halt to fighting to evacuate the injured and provide aid, and inclusive talks about a political solution.

But, there are still questions about how such an agreement would be overseen and enforced. An Arab League monitoring effort in Syria failed, labeled a farce by some who participated. The likelihood that a Syrian regime that has shelled cities would talk in good faith to the people it targeted is remote, and outgunned Syrian rebels say the time is long past for any negotiation.

The United Nations says more than 8,000 people have died. Many were civilian protesters.

Assad bucked the trend of relatively quick transitions to new governments in regional uprisings. Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, where a NATO bombing campaign helped oust Moammar Gadhafi, did not bear the same geopolitical tensions as the Syrian case. The conflict there comes as Israel considers a plan to bomb the nuclear facilities of Iran, a regional power and close ally of Assad, and further destabilization in Syria could set off lasting unrest.

Turkey and the United States, in an election year, “are reluctant to make more forceful moves because of the long-term costs of policing the sectarian violence that will surely happen following the collapse of the Assad regime,” said Arda Batu, professor of international relations at Yeditepe University in Istanbul and editor-in-chief of the Kalem Journal, a website about regional affairs.

The countries meeting in Istanbul hope to help the Syrian opposition coalesce into a more coherent movement that can show all Syrians, not only the majority Sunni Muslims, that they would have a place in a post-Assad future.

The “Friends of Syria” group of more than 60 countries made little headway at its maiden meeting in Tunisia in February, and countries are already talking about creating a subgroup to discuss military options more urgently. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are some of the strongest advocates of this approach.

One idea sees Arab countries and Turkey — with the U.S., ideally, but possibly without — establishing a buffer zone along the Syrian-Turkish border that would serve as a humanitarian corridor and staging ground for the rebel Free Syrian Army. On the Syrian side of the border, it would entail army defectors and other guerrillas wresting control of land and holding it, which they have been unable to do.

Earlier this month, CIA chief David Petraeus met Erdogan in Ankara. Turkish media said the prime minister warned that deepening instability in Syria would provide a “living space” for militant organizations active in the region, including the PKK.

On Saturday, Turkey’s Yeni Safak newspaper, which is considered close to the government, said 500 military personnel have inspected areas close to the border for a safe zone that could stretch 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) inside Syria, and would end their “studies” before the meeting in Istanbul.

The newspaper did not provide sources, but the report contributed to a sense that the safe zone idea is slowly gaining traction despite the pitfalls.

“If the U.S. is not involved, there is no way Turkey would get involved in it,” said Osman Bahadir Dincer, a Syria expert at the International Strategic Research Organisation, a center in Ankara, the Turkish capital. However, he predicted “some kind of an intervention in the form of a buffer zone or a safe zone” within one or two months.

Dincer said a decision to arm the Free Syrian Army was unlikely at the Istanbul meeting amid questions over the composition of the ragtag militias, and divisions between fighters in Syria and the Syrian National Council, the opposition group based outside the country.

“The opposition is too fragmented, there is confusion as to which group represents who, or what they represent,” he said.

The U.S. and other key allies, however, are considering providing Syrian rebels with communications help, medical aid and other “non-lethal” assistance. Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, said in South Korea on Sunday that communications assistance could be critical to the opposition’s efforts.

If any military intervention is to gain the international legitimacy that was accorded the Libya mission, it will need the U.N.’s stamp of approval. That requires the acquiescence of veto-wielding Security Council members Russia and China, an unlikely possibility that could only occur if they are included in the process and feel similarly betrayed by the Assad regime.

Without the U.N., the U.S. would be stretched to justify military involvement. It could help NATO ally Turkey in the event of a Syrian attack across the border, or make a U-turn on a doctrine of caution about intervention that Obama has insisted on since he was a presidential candidate.

“Of course, it is not possible to remain a spectator, to wait and not to intervene,” Erdogan said in South Korea, with Obama at his side. “It is our humanitarian and conscientious responsibility. We are engaged in efforts toward doing whatever is necessary within the framework of international law. We are happy to see that our views on this overlap.”

People rescue a woman trapped under debris after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck eastern Turkey, collapsing approximately 45 buildings in Van province Sunday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

ANKARA, Turkey — Cries of panic and horror filled the air as a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck eastern Turkey, killing at least 138 people as buildings pancaked and crumpled into rubble.

Tens of thousands fled into the streets running, screaming or trying to reach relatives on cell phones as apartment and office buildings cracked or collapsed. As the full extent of the damage became clear, survivors dug in with shovels or even their bare hands, desperately trying to rescue the trapped and the injured.

“My wife and child are inside! My 4-month-old baby is inside!” CNN-Turk television showed one young man sobbing outside a collapsed building in Van, the provincial capital.

The hardest hit area was Ercis, an eastern city of 75,000 close to the Iranian border, which lies on one of Turkey’s most earthquake-prone zones. The bustling city of Van, about 55 miles to the south, also sustained substantial damage. Highways in the area caved in.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at least 93 people were killed in Van, 45 others died in Ercis, and about 350 were injured. Several people were still trapped under rubble, he said, without citing any estimates.

Up to 80 buildings collapsed in Ercis, including a dormitory and 10 buildings collapsed in Van, the Turkish Red Crescent said. The sheer number of collapsed buildings gave rise to fears that the death toll could rise substantially.

U.S. scientists recorded over 100 aftershocks in eastern Turkey within 10 hours of the quake, including one with a magnitude of 6.0. Residents in Van and Ercis lit campfires, preparing to spend the night outdoors while the Red Crescent began setting up tents in a stadium. Others sought shelter with relatives in nearby villages.

Rescue efforts went deep into the night under generator-powered floodlights.

Erdogan urged residents to stay away from damaged buildings and promised assistance to all survivors.

“We won’t leave anyone to fend for themselves in the cold of winter,” he said.

Around 1,275 rescue teams from 38 provinces were being sent to the region, officials said, and troops were also assisting search-and-rescue efforts.

In Ercis, heavy machinery halted and people were ordered to keep silent as rescuers tried to listen for possible survivors inside a seven-story building housing 28 families, NTV reported.

Some inmates escaped a prison in Van after one of its walls collapsed. TRT television said around 150 inmates had fled, but a prison official said the number was much smaller and many later returned.

Nazmi Gur, a legislator from Van, said his nephew’s funeral ceremony was cut short due to the quake and he rushed back to help.

“We managed to rescue a few people but I saw at least five bodies,” Gur told The Associated Press. “It was such a powerful temblor. It lasted for such a long time.”

“But now we have no electricity, there is no heating, everyone is outside in the cold,” he added.

Authorities had no information yet on remote villages but the provincial governor was touring the region by helicopter and the government sent in tents, field kitchens and blankets.

The earthquake also shook buildings in neighboring Armenia and Iran.

In the Armenian capital of Yerevan, 100 miles from Ercis, people rushed into the streets in fear but no damage or injuries were reported. Armenia was the site of a devastating earthquake in 1988 that killed 25,000 people.

Sunday’s quake caused panic in several Iranian towns close to the Turkish border and caused cracks in buildings in the city of Chaldoran, Iranian state TV reported.

Leaders around the world conveyed their condolences and offered assistance.

“We stand shoulder to shoulder with our Turkish ally in this difficult time, and are ready to assist,” U.S. President Barack Obama said.