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.
Despite Wednesday's diplomatic flurry, the bloodshed on the ground raged unabated as rebel fighters made a new drive into the capital.
Rebels fired several mortar rounds at the Syrian president's residence in Damascus early Wednesday, but failed to hit their mark, said Bassam al-Dada, an adviser to the commander of the Free Syrian Army, Col. Riad al-Assad.
"This was a very special operation that was planned for a while," al-Dada said by telephone.
Assad's current whereabouts are unknown, and the rebels' targeting of the palace, located in the Muhajireen district in the northwestern part of the city, was largely a symbolic strike on the Syrian leader's power.
Meanwhile, a judge was killed when a bomb exploded under his car, the second high-profile assassination of a top Assad loyalist in two days. The SANA state news agency said the judge, Abad Nadhwah, died instantly when the bomb was detonated remotely.
Rebels also fired mortars at a Palestinian refugee camp, activists said, apparently to try to break the resistance of a pro-government Palestinian faction. There are a half million Palestinian refugees in Syria.
When Syria's unrest began last year, the Palestinians struggled to stay on the sidelines. But in recent months, many Palestinians started supporting the uprising.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, led by Ahmed Jibril, has remained loyal to Assad, however.
The group issued a statement Wednesday saying eight of its members had been "killed and mutilated" by the rebels. It was impossible to independently verify the allegation.
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.
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 contacts with rebel fighters.
Hague said U.K. diplomats will tell rebel commanders to respect the human rights of captured Assad loyalists, amid concern over abuses carried out by both sides.
"In all contacts, my officials will stress the importance of respecting human rights and international human rights norms, rejecting extremism and terrorism, and working toward peaceful political transition," Hague told lawmakers.
At the Zaatari camp, which houses about 40,000 of the estimated 236,000 people who have fled into Jordan from Syria, Cameron said he would press Obama to drive forward efforts to end the 19-month-old conflict.
Cameron plans to convene a meeting of Britain's National Security Council in London devoted entirely to Syria and to discuss how the U.K. can encourage Obama to pursue a more direct strategy.
"Right here in Jordan I am hearing appalling stories about what has happened inside Syria, so one of the first things I want to talk to Barack about is how we must do more to try and solve this crisis," Cameron said.
Talks with those who fled the violence has redoubled his "determination that now, with a newly-elected American president, we have got to do more to help this part of the world, to help Syria achieve transition," Cameron added.
Stringer reported from London. AP writers Matthew Lee and Bradley Klapper in Washington, Dale Gavlak in Zaatari, Jordan, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Christopher Torchia in Istanbul and Barbara Surk and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.