Air war is Assad’s last resort

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SYRIAN warplanes bombed targets east of Damascus yesterday and government forces pounded a town to the south-west, activists said, in a month-long and so far fruitless campaign to dislodge rebels around the capital.

Jets bombarded the Beit Sahm district on the road leading to the international airport and the army fired rockets at several rebel strongholds around Damascus, president Bashar al-Assad’s bastion through 21 months of an increasingly bloody uprising.

Assad, 47, an Alawite Muslim whose faith is aligned to Shia Islam, was forced on to the defensive by the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels and has resorted increasingly to air strikes and artillery to stem advances on the ground.

Nato’s US commander also accused Assad’s forces of firing Scud missiles that landed near the Turkish border, in explaining why the western alliance was sending anti-missile batteries and troops to Turkey’s southern frontier with Syria

The Syrian government denies firing Scud-like rockets. But Admiral James Stavridis blogged that a handful of Scuds were launched inside Syria in recent days towards opposition targets and “several landed fairly close to the Turkish border”.

It was not clear how close they came. Turkey has complained of occasional artillery and gunfire across its border – some of it fatal – for months. It sought the installation of missile defences along its frontier some weeks ago.

“Syria is clearly a chaotic and dangerous situation, but we have an absolute obligation to defend the borders of the alliance from any threat emanating from that troubled state,” Stavridis wrote.

Damascus has accused western powers of backing what it portrays as a Sunni Islamist “terrorist” campaign and says Washington and Europe have publicly voiced concerns that Assad’s forces might resort to chemical weapons solely as a pretext for preparing a possible military intervention.

In contrast to Nato’s air campaign in support of Libya’s successful revolt last year against Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, western powers have shied away from intervention in Syria. They have cited the greater size and ethnic and religious complexity of a major Arab state at the heart of the Middle East but have also lacked UN approval due to Russia’s support for Assad.

As well as the growing rebel challenge, Syria faces an alliance of Arab and western powers who stepped up diplomatic support for Assad’s political foes at a meeting in Morocco on Wednesday and warned him he could not win Syria’s civil war.

Assad’s opponents have consistently underestimated his tenacity, but their warnings appeared to be echoed by even his staunch ally Moscow when the Kremlin’s Middle East envoy Mikhail Bogdanov conceded he might be overthrown.

Russia said on Friday that Bogdanov’s comments did 
not reflect a policy shift.