Syrian Scud missile “escalation” perplexes U.S., stuns White House

U.S. officials confirmed on Tuesday that Syria’s regime has launched Scud missiles against internal rebel positions, provoking a stunned outrage from the White House over the “escalation” of the civil war, but leaving administration officials perplexed and cautious about President Bashir al-Assad’s moves. “The idea that the Syrian regime would launch missiles, within its borders, ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

U.S. officials confirmed on Tuesday that Syria’s regime has launched Scud missiles against internal rebel positions, provoking a stunned outrage from the White House over the “escalation” of the civil war, but leaving administration officials perplexed and cautious about President Bashir al-Assad’s moves.

“The idea that the Syrian regime would launch missiles, within its borders, at its own people, is stunning, desperate and a completely disproportionate military escalation,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, in the day’s press briefing. Carney and other officials inside the Pentagon declined to confirm the missile launches actually occured, citing their refusal to discuss intelligence matters. But other U.S. officials, speaking anonymously, confirmed the initial New York Times report.

“The Scuds landed, as I understand it, within Syria,” one U.S. official told the E-Ring. The official said Bashir al-Assad’s motivations and timing for the launches were unclear.

U.S. officials confirmed on Tuesday that Syria’s regime has launched Scud missiles against internal rebel positions, provoking a stunned outrage from the White House over the “escalation” of the civil war, but leaving administration officials perplexed and cautious about President Bashir al-Assad’s moves.

“The idea that the Syrian regime would launch missiles, within its borders, at its own people, is stunning, desperate and a completely disproportionate military escalation,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, in the day’s press briefing. Carney and other officials inside the Pentagon declined to confirm the missile launches actually occured, citing their refusal to discuss intelligence matters. But other U.S. officials, speaking anonymously, confirmed the initial New York Times report.

“The Scuds landed, as I understand it, within Syria,” one U.S. official told the E-Ring. The official said Bashir al-Assad’s motivations and timing for the launches were unclear.

“To our knowledge they were not tipped with [chemical and biological weapons],” the official said.

According to the Times, the launches occurred days ago. There are no current reports of additional or more recent launches, but the event again raised fears that Assad could equip scuds with chemical or biological agents.

Scud missiles are familiar to the public from their use by Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. But 20 years after that conflict they are considered crude and inaccurate weapons.

NATO earlier this month positioned Patriot missile batteries in Southern Turkey in what NATO officials insisted was for defensive protection only. Patriots can knock down scuds.  

Missile defense has been in the headlines since Israel’s Iron Dome system stunned the world with its 80 percent success rate knocking down rockets incoming from Gaza last month.

The State Department’s Victoria Nuland also would not confirm the use of Scud missiles, but offered another weapon has been identified on the battlefield: a barrel bomb. Such bombs have been identified previously, and it was unclear why Nuland made mention of them now, other than to highlight the total arsenal the U.S. believes Assad’s forces have used against Syrian rebel fighters.

“I would also say that we’re seeing use of another egregious weapon. It’s kind of a barrel bomb, which is an incendiary bomb that contains flammable materials. It’s sort of a napalmlike thing and is completely indiscriminate in terms of civilians, so very, very concerning and indicative of the regime’s desperation and the regime’s brutality,” she said, on Wednesday. Nuland said napalm or the substance in question was not considered a chemical weapon.

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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