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Dec 12, 2012 Comments Off Chuck Biscuits

WASHINGTON — Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have fired Scud missiles at rebel fighters in recent days, Obama administration officials said on Wednesday.

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 destabilize the Middle East, and suggests increased desperation on the part of the Assad government. A fresh wave of mayhem struck the Syrian capital Damascus on Wednesday, reports from the region said, including a deadly triple bombing outside the Interior Ministry. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 antimissile batteries, the administration official said.

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 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 on Tuesday.

“The Syrian regime has used aircraft,” the administration official said. “It has used artillery, and it appears that it has even used missile 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 antigovernment activist network in Syria, reported from its Damascus office in an e-mail 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.