Antakya: On the outskirts of the Turkish town of Antakya, known in biblical times as Antioch, a group of rebel Syrian officers meet to plan the next step in its daunting campaign.

Fiddling with communications equipment 30km from the Syrian border, the soldiers - all members of the Free Syrian Army - argue that only force can push President Bashar Al Assad from power and bring the bloody crisis to an end.

“It has been more than a year now,” exclaims Captain Ammar Al Wawi, a former rebel commander in the Idlib area who serves as secretary of the FSA’s military committee. “All the political approaches have been tested and none has produced any result.”

The other FSA officers sitting around him nod their agreement, but in Ankara, despite the avowed desire of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, to see the back of Assad, the message is very different - at least, in public. The use of force is not on the table.

Syria represents Turkey's biggest foreign policy dilemma, even as Ankara seeks to play a leading role in a Middle East in the throes of change.

Erdogan feels betrayed by Assad, to whom he was once exceptionally close. He has been unable to persuade the Syrian leader to embrace reform, and has since compared his former friend to Adolf Hitler and Muammer Gaddafi.

Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, said recently of Assad: “He was a kind of guarantor of stability for us but now he is the opposite - he and his regime are the main cause of instability in Syria.”

But Turkey has no desire to be sucked into a war with Damascus that it would have to fight alone; it does not want the US to offload the Syria problem for Ankara to deal with; and, with more than 900km of shared border, it is all too aware of its own vulnerabilities.

Cengiz Candar, a prominent Turkish analyst of the Middle East, says: “Unless the US changes its position, Turkey has reached [the limit of] its capacity to act.”

Although Ankara rallies against Assad and hosts nearly 30,000 refugees, as well as Syria’s political and military opposition, it wants to stop things spiralling out of control.

Hence the suggestions - increasingly heard from foreign diplomats and Syrian activists - that Turkey is operating several policies on Syria at the same time, some concealed within others, like Russian dolls.

Most visible among these are the country’s call for the UN to act against Assad and its effort to unite the fractious Syrian opposition, much of which is based in Istanbul.

Less obviously, Turkey is taking steps that could reduce the risk of border incidents - and prepare the way for refugees to remain on its soil long-term.

While refugee camps in the Turkish province of Hatay harbour men who say they sometimes cross over to Syria to fight the regime, Ankara is emptying such outposts and moving their inhabitants to sturdier camps on a less porous part of the border.

Then there is the question of arms; the demand for weapons is voiced not only by the FSA officials in Antakya, but almost uniformly by refugees throughout the camps in Turkey.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have both announced plans to arm rebels in Syria. Turkey has denied reports that it has helped arms shipments reach the border. But some foreign diplomats suspect that Turkey has shifted from a “blind eye” policy towards arms shipments to a policy of more active assistance.

Possible factors are Ankara’s desire to avoid any build-up of arms in its own violent south-east, and its preference for any weapons that reach Syria to end up with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood rather than with more Salafist organisations of the sort favoured by Riyadh.

Any direct intervention in Syria could be risky for Ankara - not least because Damascus could play the ‘PKK card’, allowing the Kurdish militants of the Kurdistan Workers party, or PKK, to attack Turkey from Syrian territory. Turkey, the EU and the US all classify the PKK as a terrorist organisation.

Meanwhile, officials in Ankara, and even many of the Syrian refugees, express doubts about the fighting abilities of the FSA officials and their chances of prevailing against Assad.