- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 7, 2012

ZAATARI, Jordan — Western efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad shifted dramatically Wednesday, with Britain announcing it will deal directly with rebel military leaders and Turkey saying NATO members have discussed using Patriot missiles to protect a safe zone inside Syria.

The developments came within hours of President Obama’s re-election, with U.S. allies anticipating a new, bolder approach from the American leader to end the deadlocked civil war that has killed more than 36,000 people since an uprising against Mr. Assad began in March 2011.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, visiting a camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, said the United States, 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 United States 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,” Mr. Cameron said.

The Turkish official who reported Patriot missile discussions between his nation and its allies, including the United States, said planning for the safe zone inside Syria had been put on hold pending the U.S. election.

The foreign ministry official spoke on condition of anonymity because of Turkish government prohibitions on contact with the media.

He also said any missile deployment might happen under a “NATO umbrella,” though NATO has insisted it will not intervene without a clear mandate from the United Nations.

“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.

On the ground in Syria, rebels were making a new push into the capital Wednesday, clashing heavily with troops in the suburbs of Damascus, including Ghouta and Harasta. The regime’s capital stronghold has seen a surge in violence this week with some of the fiercest clashes in months.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees said the Syrian military was shelling another suburb, Beit Saham, with tanks and mortars, killing at least 18 people in that neighborhood alone.

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. Mr. Hague also insisted that Britain would not consider offering weapons to Mr. Assad’s opponents.

Face-to-face meetings with military figures will take place outside Syria, Mr. Hague said. Diplomats from the United States, Britain, France and Turkey are 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.

He said British 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 towards peaceful political transition,” Mr. Hague told lawmakers.