U.S.: Syria fires Scuds at insurgents
Use of ballistic missiles seen as sign of growing desperation.
WAshingtOn — Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad have fired Scud missiles at rebel fighters in recent days, White House officials said Wednesday.
The missile launches, which are a significant escalation in the fighting, suggests increased desperation on the part of the Assad regime as a fresh wave of mayhem struck the Syrian capital Damascus on Wednesday, including a deadly triple bombing outside the Interior Ministry.
One U.S. official, who asked to remain anonymous, said that missiles had been fired from the Damascus area at targets in northern Syria.
“The total number is probably north of six now,” said another U.S. official, adding that the targets were in areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army, the main armed insurgent group.
The conflict has already killed more than 40,000 civilians. It was not clear how many casualties resulted from the Scuds — a class of Soviet-era missile made infamous by Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf War. But it appeared to be the first time that the Assad government had fired the missiles at targets inside Syria.
U.S. officials did not say how they had monitored the missile firings, but U.S. intelligence has been closely following the Syrian conflict through aerial surveillance and other methods, partly out of concern that Assad may resort to the use of chemical weapons.
The Obama administration views the Assad government’s use of Scud missiles as a “significant escalation” of the conflict, said a senior official, who said the assault indicates the increasing pressure on Assad, since Scuds are primarily defensive weapons, being used by the government offensively against a counterinsurgency.
“Using Scuds to target tanks or military bases is one thing,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Using them to target rebels hiding in playgrounds at schools is something else.”
Among other repercussions the Obama administration fears is the possibility that Assad’s military could fire Scuds near, or over, the border with Turkey, which has become one of the Syrian president’s most ardent foes. That could result in Turkey firing its Patriot anti-missile batteries, the administration official said.
The reports of the missile firings come as representatives of more than 100 countries and organizations that support the anti-Assad movement met in Morocco and endorsed a newly formed insurgent coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. President Barack Obama formally acknowledged that coalition, known as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, in an interview on Tuesday with ABC News.
Military experts said the Assad government’s use of Scuds might reflect worries that its aircraft have been vulnerable to rebel air defenses. In recent weeks, rebel forces have captured Syrian military bases, seized air-defense weapons and used some of them to fire at Syria warplanes. But one expert said the government may have decided to use large missiles in order to wipe out military bases — and the arsenals they hold — that had been taken over by the opposition.
There have been other indications of Syrian government use of missiles. The Local Coordinating Committees, an anti-government activist network in Syria, reported from its Damascus office in an email late Tuesday that “Regime forces are firing land missiles that are capable of carrying chemical warheads.” The group did not elaborate on what the missiles were or where the information had originated.