INCIRLIK, Turkey — European Union leaders agreed to look at all options to help Syria's opposition remove the "illegitimate regime" of President Bashar Assad.
"Inaction and indifference are not options," British Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters after an EU summit in Brussels Friday. "We're saying all options, all options, should be considered in order to help the opposition and enable greater support to the protection of civilians. Nothing is off the table." He refused to be drawn on possible military action.
Using their strongest language yet, EU leaders said they're "appalled" by the conflict in Syria, where Assad's government has been fighting rebels since March 2011, with the number of dead approaching 50,000. Opposition forces are closing on the capital Damascus and the U.S. and European leaders have warned Assad against using chemical weapons. North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries are sending missiles to Turkey to defend against possible Syrian attacks.
The EU will act to assist Syria's opposition, the leaders said in a statement after their talks. Assad's government is increasingly vulnerable, French President Francois Hollande told reporters. Cameron said the Syrian situation is not the same as that in Libya, where military intervention assisted the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi last year.
"Syria is different to Libya; there are extra complications and difficulties," the British premier said when asked if there would be military action. "The conversation now is about what more we should do. We can't go on as we are."
More than 100 countries have recognized Syria's main opposition group as the legitimate representative of the country's people, cementing its status as a government-in- waiting. They warned Assad that using his stockpiles of chemical weapons would invite military action.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed an order allowing the deployment of two Patriot anti-missile batteries as well as 400 U.S. personnel to Turkey, Pentagon spokesman George Little said Friday.
"We expect them to deploy in the coming weeks," Little told reporters traveling with Panetta to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. "The U.S., working closely with NATO allies, is going to support the defense of Turkey, especially with potential threats emanating from Syria."
Asked if the Patriot batteries would be used to enforce a future no-fly zone over Syria, Little said it was "too early to say" how they will be used.
The rebels have called for an air exclusion zone to create safe havens in border areas. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in October that allies had discussed ways of protecting civilians in those areas, including proposals for such a zone.
Setting up a no-fly zone would be no easy feat. Russia and China have vetoed United Nations resolutions on Syria in the past. Russia said Friday it had not changed policy on Syria, even after comments Thursday by Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov that Assad was losing control.
No-fly zones have been imposed without a U.N. mandate based on the doctrines of "implicit authorization" and "humanitarian intervention," though neither doctrine has ever gained widespread acceptance in international law, according to Stefan Talmon, a professor at Oxford University.
The Patriot batteries, capable of shooting down enemy missiles, will remain in Turkey for an unspecified period of time and will be operated by the U.S. personnel, Little said. He declined to specify where they'll be located.
Turkey and Syria had close ties until protests against Assad began. Tensions between the two governments have grown since the downing of a Turkish jet in June, the deaths of five Turks killed by a mortar round from Syria in October and the use by rebels of Turkish bases.
The German parliament also voted today to deploy Patriot batteries with as many as 400 soldiers to Turkey. The Netherlands is also sending two batteries.