NATO will weigh calls for a naval mission in the eastern Mediterranean Sea to police refugee streams as a fresh exodus from Syria adds to European leaders' desperation.
Such a mission, proposed by Germany and Turkey, would thrust the 28-nation alliance into the humanitarian trauma aggravated by the Russian-backed offensive by Syrian troops that drove thousands out of Aleppo and toward Turkey.
"We will take very seriously a request from Turkey and other allies to look into what NATO can do to help them cope with and deal with the crisis," North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday.
NATO is confronted with Russian intervention in the Middle East -- including airspace violations over Turkey, an alliance member -- after reinforcing its eastern European defenses in response to the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea and fomenting rebellion in Ukraine in 2014.
Allied warships now on a counter-terrorism mission in the Mediterranean and anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia could be reassigned to monitor and potentially go after human traffickers in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey.
A naval mission, to be discussed Wednesday and Thursday at a meeting of defense ministers in Brussels, is controversial. It could produce unpleasant images of NATO sailors and soldiers herding refugee children behind barbed wire, handing a propaganda victory to Islamic radicals and the alliance's detractors in the Kremlin.
With her political standing in jeopardy as German public opinion turns against her open-arms approach, German Chancellor Angela Merkel went to Ankara on Monday with limited European leverage to persuade Turkey to house more refugees on its soil instead of pointing them toward western Europe.
Stoltenberg said naval patrols would fit into "reassurance measures" to shield Turkey from the war in neighboring Syria that already include Patriot air-defense missiles and air surveillance over Turkish territory and the coast.
U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute called on European Union governments to take the lead on civilian emergency management, with the alliance confined to offering backup. He said military planners will draw up options.
"This is fundamentally an issue that should be addressed a couple miles from here at EU headquarters, but it doesn't mean NATO can't assist," Lute told reporters.