U.S.: Syria fires Scuds at in­sur­gents

Use of bal­lis­tic mis­siles seen as sign of grow­ing des­per­a­tion.

Austin American-Statesman - - THE SECOND FRONT - By eric schmitt and michael r. Gor­don Bythom shanker

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.

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