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Various news outlets, including this paper, are reporting that the beleaguered regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has, beginning Monday, fired six Scud missiles from Damascus towards rebel forces in the north. Although, just as with the murmurings of chemical weapons, we should treat these early, anonymously-sourced reports with the appropriate scepticism, this is another emerging sign of desperation by a regime that has suffered unprecedented reversals over the past three weeks.
Scuds are a family of cheap and easy short-range ballistic missiles developed by the Soviet Union in the 1960s. They were taken up enthusiastically by a variety of Soviet allies like Syria, particularly after the missile exchanges of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s demonstrated their utility as instruments of terror or – in Syria’s case – as potential delivery systems for chemical weapons. Syria probably has many hundreds of various types of Scuds, with the most advanced, the Scud-D, capable of travelling 700km.
More recently, Scuds have served as the favoured instrument of panicking autocrats everywhere. Last year, Colonel Gaddafi lobbed a Scud at rebels in eastern Libya just one week before he collapsed, to no particular effect. Saddam Hussein famously used Scuds against Israel and Saudi Arabia during the First Gulf War, causing panic if not much damage. In 1999, even Russia directed some against the Chechen capital Grozny killing well over a hundred people.
So, if the reports are true, why is Assad turning to bigger missiles? Scuds are completely useless in urban warfare, and too imprecise to target small rebel formations outside of cities. According to one account, the Scuds were fired at an area west of Idlib (in a province almost entirely out of regime hands), causing no casualties. That makes sense. Gaddafi’s Scuds last year also hit empty ground. Using chemical weapons would fix the problem of inaccuracy, but there’s no sign whatsoever that the alleged missiles were chemical-armed. Let’s also discount the rather wild suggestion, made in the Sunday Times over the summer, that Iranian Revolutionary Guards were controlling Surian Scuds.
One plausible explanation for this move may be the changing military balance. Until now, Assad had complete air superiority. He could bomb from the air where and when he wished, even after IEDs took a toll on the mobility of his ground forces. In recent weeks, however, the regime has lost a string of key air bases and, partly as a result of the stolen anti-aircraft weapons, suffered downed aircraft. Assad’s command of the skies may be slipping somewhat.
In this respect, the use of missiles is just an alternative means of delivering explosives to rebel-held ground. If the missiles were targeted at build-up areas, then this would be in keeping with the regime’s long-standing strategy in places like Aleppo: punishing the civilian population for sheltering rebels, and perhaps they’ll get the message.
Nevertheless, there seems to be something spectacularly pointless about lobbing conventionally-armed and inaccurate missiles in the hope of quelling a nationwide insurgency. That, too, may be the point. In recent, days talk of Western military intervention has intensified, including whispers of possible air and naval support for the rebels. Intentionally irrational acts may be intended to send the message that intervention could incur heavy costs, particularly with Western allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel within range of Syrian chemical-armed missiles. Missiles are deterrents, and actually firing them – wherever they might land, and despite NATO’s deployment of the Patriot missile defence system to Turkey – tends to concentrates the mind in Western capitals.
Moreover, during the First Gulf War, our attempt at “Scud-hunting” (depicted most famously in Bravo Two Zero) was notoriously ineffective, since the mobile launchers allowed Saddam Hussein to move his missiles around. In the end, very few launchers were found and destroyed. Assad may very well be hoping that this lesson is remembered.