threat to region
Washington, Dec. 12: Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have fired Scud missiles at rebel fighters in recent days, Obama administration officials said today.
The move represents a significant escalation in the fighting, which has already killed more than 40,000 civilians in a nearly two-year-old conflict that has threatened to destabilise West Asia, and suggests increased desperation on the part of the Assad government.
One American official, who asked not to be identified because he was discussing classified information, said that missiles had been fired from the Damascus area at targets in northern Syria.
“The total is number is probably north of six now,” said another American official, adding that the targets were in areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army, the main armed insurgent group.
It is not clear how many casualties resulted from the attacks by the Scuds — a class of Soviet-era missiles made famous by Saddam Hussein of Iraq during the first Persian Gulf war. But it appeared to be the first time that the Assad government had fired the missiles at targets inside Syria.
American officials did not say how they had monitored the missile firings, but American intelligence has been closely following developments in Syria through aerial surveillance and other methods, partly out of concern that Assad may resort to the use of chemical weapons in the conflict.
The Obama administration views the Assad government’s use of Scud missiles as a “significant escalation” of the conflict, said a senior official. It also shows, he said, the increasing pressure on Assad, since Scuds are primarily defensive weapons, being used by the government offensively against a counter-insurgency.
“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.”
Military experts said that move might reflect the Assad government’s worries that its aircraft have been vulnerable to rebel air defences. In recent weeks, rebel forces have captured Syrian military bases, seized air-defence weapons and used some of them to fire at Syria warplanes.
But one expert said that 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.
The Obama administration has yet to comment publicly on the missile attacks, but a senior administration official alluded to the development in a briefing for reporters yesterday.
“The Syrian regime has used aircraft,” the administration official said. “It has used artillery, and it appears that it has even used missiles to attack the Syrian population and to attack what was a peaceful protest movement.”
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 yesterday 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 came from.
The developments came as representatives of more than 100 countries and organisations 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 Obama formally acknowledged that coalition, known as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, in an interview yesterday with ABC News.
But the leader of the coalition took issue with a decision by the Obama administration to classify Al Nusra Front — one of several armed groups fighting Assad — as a foreign terrorist organisation. Moroccan organisers of the conference said a declaration recognising the new coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people had been adopted by the 114 representatives at the gathering.