American and NATO officials said on Wednesday that the beleaguered forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have fired half a dozen ballistic missiles at a military base near the Turkish border, which was seized by rebel fighters earlier this week.
Not long after the announcement, Russia publicly conceded for the first time that the rebels might win the 20-month-long civil war, which has left more than 40,000 dead and has left tens of thousands of desperate refugees living in squalid camps in eastern Syria.
“An opposition victory can’t be excluded,” Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov told a Kremlin advisory panel on Thursday. “We must look at the facts: there is a trend for the government to progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory.”
He didn’t indicate whether his remarks heralded a shift away from Russia’s insistance that there be a negotiated end to the conflict.
Officials in Washington and Brussels said that Assad’s forces fired Russian-made Scud missiles this week from an air base outside Damascus, targeting the sprawling Sheikh Suleiman base that the rebels seized two days ago. Rebel units involved in the capture of the base just north of Aleppo included the jihadist group, Jabhat al-Nusra, which the Obama administration designated a terrorist organization this week, to the anger of rebels, who say the jihadists are among the rebellion’s best fighters.
The jihadists are currently at the forefront of a battle that has been raging for days in Syria’s northwest, where rebels say they are poised to pull off another major tactical advance and capture the town of Jisr ash-Shugur. The town, which has a history of opposing the Assad regime and was the scene of a mass killing by Syrian security forces in 1980, is a strategic point on highways linking the port city of Latakia with Idlib and Aleppo. Its fall to rebel forces would be a significant blow to Assad as he struggles to keep rebel forces from breaking out of the rural northwest.
The Scud escalation fits into a pattern that has quickened during over the past year: with each advance or tactical success by the rebels, Assad forces have resorted to more devastating weaponry in a bid to push them back.
“As the regime becomes more and more desperate, we see it resorting to increased lethality and more vicious weapons moving forward, and we have in recent days seen missiles deployed,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
A European official, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, told The Daily Beast that the Scud attacks—half a dozen ballistic missiles have been unleashed—were almost certainly an effort by Assad forces to prevent the rebels from seizing anti-aircraft guns and other heavier weaponry, which they could use to further undermine the Syrian Air Force’s control of the skies. Rebels have effectively managed to employ shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles either seized after capturing other bases or purchased on the black market. Indeed, over the past two months, the rebels have managed to shoot down half a dozen Assad warplanes and helicopters.
On Wednesday, the international NGO Human Rights Watch said it could now document that in populated areas, the Syrian military has recently used air-delivered incendiary bombs that spew out flammable material. More than 100 nations have banned such bombs, which can cause permanent scarring and disfigurement.
“We’re disturbed that Syria has apparently begun using incendiary munitions, as these weapons cause especially cruel civilian suffering and extensive property destruction when used in populated areas,” said the HRW’s Steve Goose. The U.S. State Department has also expressed concern about incendiary bombs. Human Rights Watch says they have evidence the bombs were dropped over two districts in Damascus, Maarat al-Numan in Idlib province and Quseir near the city of Homs. Markings on the remnants of the bombs identify them as ZAB-series incendiary aircraft bombs made by the former Soviet Union.
The Obama administration has warned the Assad government that any use of chemical weapons would be considered the crossing of a “red line,” but incendiary bombs are not categorized as chemical weaponry. U.S. and European officials say that although Scuds can be equipped with chemical warheads, the ones fired this week were fitted with conventional ones.
The Scud development came as representatives from more than 100 countries gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco, to boost the Syrian opposition and help unite a rebellion, which thus far has been marked by disunity and disputes. President Obama on Tuesday followed a number of European governments and formally recognized the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a new opposition umbrella organization, as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
Despite the announcement, an increasing number of rebel groups remain angry at the Obama administration’s decision to designate Jabhet al-Nusra a terrorist group and have signed petitions and posted online statements criticizing the move.
“The designation has undercut National Coalition leaders,” says an international NGO worker in Syria, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. “Al Nusra is popular among rebel fighters on the ground.”
Rebel leaders are also frustrated with Washington’s refusal to arm them and are lobbying France, which looked like it might break ranks with the U.S. and persuade its European allies to end an arms embargo on the rebels.
In the meantime, aid agencies are warning that with fighting intensifying across the country, the plight of refugees and Syrians uprooted by the conflict is worsening as the winter sets in. In the north, in the village of Atmeh, which is close to the Turkish border, more than 8,000 refugees are living under rain-soaked tents. Essential supplies, including blankets, are hard to come by and influenza is running through the camp.
Tens of thousands of others, including many wounded, are trapped in the city of Deir Azzour in eastern Syria, according to Doctors Without Borders. The humanitarian NGO is calling for the sick and wounded to be evacuated to safer locations. “Deir Azzour currently has just one makeshift hospital with only four doctors working there,” said Doctors Without Borders coordinator Patrick Wieland. “Medicine is in short supply.”