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    Middle East
     Dec 14, 2012

Syrian Scuds cause a big bang
By Victor Kotsev

A day after the United States and more than 100 countries formally recognized the new Syrian opposition council as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, American officials told The New York Times that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had fired at least half a dozen Scud missiles at rebel forces in the north. This is a major escalation that could point to an impending foreign intervention in the country - although such an outcome is still not guaranteed and its scope is unclear.

Analysts are divided on how to interpret the information: some point out that these missiles can carry chemical weapons, while others suggest that Assad may have used them to destroy major military bases and ammunition depots that had recently fallen into

rebel hands. Over the past couple of weeks, the Syrian army allegedly combined the precursors of sarin gas, a deadly nerve agent, to form a number of chemical warheads. Most reports, however, claim that these devices were prepared for loading onto airplanes rather than Scuds.

Militarily, the firing of heavy missiles would be yet another indication of the regime's weakness. Assad's army - even his armored units - has been taking heavy casualties, and has been forced to rely increasingly on air power in the second half of this year. More recently, a number of fighter planes and helicopters were shot down by the rebels (who claim to be using for the purpose anti-aircraft guns and shoulder-launched missiles captured from army depots), and it could be that the regime now considers many bombing missions too costly. In addition, while inaccurate, Scuds cause greater destruction than most airplane bombs in the Syrian army's inventory. They are particularly well-suited for large, lightly fortified targets.

It is unclear what the targets of the missiles were, and the US has not supplied any evidence to back its claims. An anonymous American official quoted by the Times did not miss an opportunity to score a propaganda point: "Using Scuds to target tanks or military bases is one thing... Using them to target rebels hiding in playgrounds at schools is something else."

However, the notion that schools were the primary target of the missiles appears unrealistic. At the very least, what would be the six or so schools that are such important targets as to merit, from Assad's point of view, the use of Scuds?

On the speculative side of things, some reports coming out of Syria indicate that facilities holding chemical weapons, particularly in the north, may have fallen - or be close to falling - into rebel hands. If this is indeed the case, it would make sense for Assad to use Scuds against such bases.

It is very important to pay attention to the build-up of anti-Assad propaganda and diplomatic preparations for a Western military operation in Syria. The forming of a new rebel council last month in Qatar took place under intense Western pressure. The move to recognize this council would make it easier for the rebels to request official assistance in the near future.

In order to clear out some last remaining hurdles before such a step, the US blacklisted one of the most problematic and extremist rebel groups, the Al Nusra Front, days ago, labeling it a terrorist organization. "The move, which was expected, is aimed at building Western support for the rebellion against the government of President Bashar al-Assad by quelling fears that money and arms meant for the rebels would flow to a jihadi group," wrote The New York Times on Monday.

The claims about chemical weapons and Scud missiles, while mostly unconfirmed, add a rhetorical boost to this well-coordinated effort. A number of recent reports issued by the rebels even go as far as to claim that Assad has already used weapons of mass destruction - "toxic gases", for example - in urban centers. [1]

In parallel to the public policy juggernaut, the deployment of Patriot missiles to southern Turkey and various other military preparations indicate that an operation is being considered very seriously by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its Middle Eastern allies. Still, it is hard to tell how far exactly these powers are willing to go in order to topple Assad. It is possible that even they are not entirely clear on this point among themselves.

Given the growing chaos in the country, a limited campaign to secure and/or destroy the weapons of mass destruction may become unavoidable in the near future. A more extensive operation, however, is likely to meet stiff public resistance in Western societies, and would cause a headache to even the most committed hawks.

An elaborate bluff may, in fact, be enough to make the Syrian regime think twice before using some of its most potent arms, and in this way blunt the capabilities of its war machine. Add to this mix an extensive air lift of weapons to the rebels, and perhaps also a limited form of a no-fly zone (such as anti-aircraft missiles stationed near the border), and one could have an opposition victory almost without lifting a finger.

According to an optimistic scenario, Assad would collapse financially, if not militarily, very soon. In a recent interview, the Jordanian king specified four months as the timeframe when the Syrian president would go broke. Meanwhile, even the capital Damascus is under rebel siege.

In reality, however, a collapse of central authority in Syria - should that happen - is unlikely to bring an end to the civil war. Assad's supporters would most probably withdraw to the Western coastal region, much of which is inhabited by members of his Alawite sect, and continue to fight from there. Kurdish militants would lay claim on the northeastern parts of the country, and a protracted conflict between various militias would be the most likely outcome. Massacres perpetrated by rebel forces - such as that in an Alawite village days ago - are expected to harden the resolve of the minorities to fight on.

Increasingly, it appears that only a full-scale ground intervention could stop the carnage which has claimed more than 40,000 lives so far. Such an operation, however, would require long-term commitment of forces, and would be extremely costly and dangerous. It is hard to believe that anything of this scope is in the making - or that an end of the violence is within sight.

1. See, for example, Syria Today, LCCS, December 7, 2012.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

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