PM raises stakes with move to ‘shape opposition’ in Syria

A rebel fighter throws a grenade towards Syrian government forces
A rebel fighter throws a grenade towards Syrian government forces
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British prime minister David Cameron has authorised direct contacts between the UK’s special envoy to the Syrian opposition and rebel military chiefs in an effort to “help shape the opposition”, he said yesterday on a visit to a refugee camp in Jordan.

Meanwhile, Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that Nato was preparing to deploy Patriot missiles on his country’s soil, possibly to protect a safe zone inside Syria.

Previously, Britain has acknowledged contacts only with exile groups and political opposition figures – some connected to rebel forces – inside Syria.

The PM said: “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, and try to help them achieve their goal, which is our goal of a Syria without Assad.”

Mr Cameron was in the country on the final leg of a three-day Middle East tour. He is believed to be the first G20 leader to visit the Zaatari camp.

At the camp, which houses about 40,000 of the estimated 236,000 people who have fled into Jordan from Syria, Mr Cameron also said he would press newly re-elected US president Barack at the first opportunity to drive forward efforts to end the 19-month-old conflict.

He added: “I wanted to hear for myself the stories of people who have been bombed and shot and blasted out of their homes in Syria by a deeply illegitimate and unpleasant regime that is raining down death and destruction on its own people.

“It is truly horrendous to hear those stories and just redoubles my determination that, with a newly-elected American president, we have got to do more to help this part of the world.”

Some of those arriving seeking shelter in Jordan had walked for up to 15 days to reach the border, he was told by the local Jordanian military chief.

At the camp, Mr Cameron met some of those recently arrived in the country and was treated to a patriotic Syrian song by young girls at one of the classroom tents set up for the many children living there.

Mr Cameron told them: “You are not just missed in Syria, all of the world wants to help you, including my country.”

In Ankara, a Turkish foreign ministry official said discussions about the deployment of Patriot missiles to protect a safe zone had been put on hold until after the US election.

Since the summer, president Bashar al-Assad’s regime has significantly increased its use of air power against rebels as government forces are stretched thin on multiple fronts.

The Turkish official said any missile deployment might happen under a “Nato umbrella”, though Nato has insisted it will not intervene without a clear United Nations mandate.

On the ground in Syria yesterday, rebels made a new push into Damascus. Opposition fighters fired mortar shells toward the presidential palace, though they missed their target, and clashed heavily with troops in the suburbs. The regime’s capital stronghold has seen a surge in violence this week, with some of the fiercest clashes in months.

A medical aid group also said that Syrian troops are seizing foreign aid and reselling it or channelling it towards government loyalists, putting millions of lives at risk.

Tawfik Chamaa, a Geneva-based doctor and spokesman for the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organisations, said: “When the regime attacks one of our medical facilities, whether it’s a hospital or something else, they load up everything they can carry, and they burn the rest … most of the time they resell it on the black market.”