The US, Britain and France are scrambling to retain their influence with Syrian opposition groups amid fears that most support from the Gulf states has been diverted towards extremist Islamic groups.
Rising concern that an increasingly sectarian civil war could spread across the region, combined with reports of brutality by some opposition groups, and evidence that the best-organised and best-funded rebel groups are disproportionately Salafist (militant Sunni fundamentalists), has triggered an urgent policy change in western capitals.
Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, flew to Istanbul on Saturday to meet Syrian opposition activists and boost military and intelligence co-operation with the Turkish government to prevent the violence spreading across the border.
Jon Wilks, Britain’s special envoy to the Syrian opposition, was also in Istanbul last week for a meeting with someone the foreign office described as “a senior political representative” of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
On Friday, the UK announced 5 million pounds in new non-military aid to Syrian opposition groups, pointedly insisting that all the recipients should be organisations inside Syria, therefore excluding the SNC.
Clinton’s meetings in Istanbul were also intended to sidestep the exile group, on the grounds that it had little influence on events inside Syria.
In France, the government of Francois Hollande is under intense pressure, particularly from former president Nicolas Sarkozy, to intervene directly on the side of the opposition.
Syria’s rebels were jubilant on Tuesday, claiming to have shot down a jet and captured its pilot an apparent victory against the overwhelmingly superior firepower of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
A video uploaded onto the Internet on Monday showed the jet bursting into flames as it streaked through the sky amid heavy gunfire. The rebels said they had hit it with newly acquired high-calibre anti-aircraft guns.