ZAATARI, Jordan: Western efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad shifted dramatically Wednesday, with Britain saying it will deal directly with rebel military leaders and Turkey saying NATO members have discussed protecting a safe zone inside Syria with Patriot missiles.
The developments came within hours of President Barack Obama's re-election, which U.S. allies said they have been waiting for before implementing new strategies to end the deadlocked civil war that has killed more than 36,000 people over the past year and a half.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, visiting a camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, said the U.S., Britain and other allies should do more to "shape the opposition" into a coherent force and open channels of communication directly with rebel military commanders. Previously, Britain and the U.S. have acknowledged contacts only with exile groups and political opposition figures inside Syria.
And a Turkish official said Turkey and allies, including the United States, have discussed the possibility of using Patriot missiles to protect a safe zone inside Syria.
The foreign ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of ministry prohibitions on contacts with the news media, said planning for the safe zone had been put on hold pending the U.S. election. He said any missile deployment might happen under a "NATO umbrella," though NATO has insisted it will not intervene without a clear United Nations mandate.
"There is an opportunity for Britain, for America, for Saudi Arabia, Jordan and like-minded allies to come together and try to help shape the opposition, outside Syria and inside Syria," Cameron said. "And try to help them achieve their goal, which is our goal of a Syria without Assad."
In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said talks with rebel military leaders would not involve advice on military tactics or support for their operations. Hague also insisted that Britain would not consider offering weapons to Assad's opponents.
"British contacts with military elements of the Syrian armed opposition will be limited to a political dialogue including working towards an inclusive political transition," he told lawmakers in the statement.
Face-to-face meetings with military figures will take place outside Syria, Hague said. Diplomats from the U.S., Britain, France and Turkey are already scheduled to meet with Syrian opposition groups on Thursday in Doha, Qatar, though there has been no announcement that those talks will include discussion with rebel fighters.
"With the re-election of Obama, what you have is a strong confidence on the British side that the U.S. administration will be engaged more on Syria from the get-go," said Shashank Joshi, an analyst at London's Royal United Services Institute, a military and security think tank.
At the Zaatari camp, where more than 33,000 people have fled Syria, Cameron said he would press Obama at the first opportunity to drive forward efforts to end the 19-month-old conflict.
"One of the first things I want to do with the newly elected president is talk about how we can do more for refugees here on the border, more pressure on the United Nations, more pressure on this dreadful regime behind me in Syria, more to help the opposition," Cameron said.
Cameron will convene a meeting of Britain's National Security Council in London devoted entirely to Syria and how the U.K. can encourage Obama to pursue a more direct strategy, the British leader's office said.