By DAVID STRINGER and ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — Britain called on the U.S. and other allies Wednesday to do more to shape the Syrian opposition into a coherent force, saying the re-election of President Barack Obama is an opportunity for the world to take stronger action to end the deadlocked civil war.
Also Wednesday, Turkey said NATO members — including the United States — have discussed using Patriot missiles along the Syrian border. It was unclear whether the purpose was to protect a safe zone inside Syria or to protect Turkey from Syrian regime attacks.
The announcements come as U.S. allies appear to be anticipating a new, bolder approach from Obama now that he has won a second term.
"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 security think tank.
It remains to be seen, however, if the U.S. plans to change course in any significant way.
Syria's civil war, which activists estimate has killed more than 36,000 people since March 2011, has been the most deadly and prolonged conflict of the Arab Spring. World powers have shown no appetite for foreign military intervention, and there are fears that arming the fractious opposition could backfire, with powerful weapons falling into the hands of extremists.
Against this backdrop, a diplomatic process that has proven increasingly moribund and faltering has been the only real option for peace thus far.
In Washington, the State Department said the Obama administration was open to considering the deployment of Patriot missiles along the Turkish border, as was done previously during the 1990 Gulf War and at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003.
Officials said such a deployment had been raised by Turkish officials several weeks ago at NATO but that there had been no formal request from Ankara. They stressed that Patriots are defensive and would not be used to help enforce potential no-fly zones over Syrian territory.
"We've been working within NATO and with Turkey to look at what other defenses (and) support Turkey might require," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. "As of today we haven't had a formal request of NATO. But as you know in the past, we have reinforced Turkey with Patriots. So, we will await a formal request, and then NATO will deliver aid."
A Turkish foreign ministry official who reported Patriot missile discussions between his nation and its allies, including the United States, said planning for possible Patriot deployment to protect a safe zone inside Syria had been put on hold pending the U.S. election.
But the issue is likely to be taken up now that Obama has won a second term, he added, saying any missile deployment might happen under a "NATO umbrella." He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with department policy.
A Patriot missile air defense system could be a boost for Assad's enemies. Since the summer, Assad's regime has significantly increased its use of air power against rebels as government forces are stretched thin on multiple fronts.
NATO has insisted it will not intervene in Syria without a clear United Nations mandate.
During a trip to visit Syrian refugees in Jordan on Wednesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron also announced his country will deal directly with Syrian rebel military leaders. Previously, Britain and the U.S. have acknowledged contacts only with exile groups and political opposition figures — some connected to rebel forces — inside Syria.
"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."
Like their British counterparts, U.S. officials, including the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, have already been in contact with members of the Free Syrian Army and those discussions will continue, Nuland said.
She stressed, however, that there is no change to the U.S. policy of supplying only non-lethal assistance to the political opposition.