Ballistic missile strikes on Aleppo signal new escalation in Syria war
By Liz Sly,
ALEPPO, Syria — Dusk was falling at the close of another wearying day in this war-ravaged city when the ballistic missiles struck, signaling what appears to be a chilling escalation in Syria’s already devastatingly violent civil war.
Landing minutes and about a mile apart in two densely populated neighborhoods, they left scenes of devastation more closely resembling those of an earthquake, with homes pulverized beyond recognition, people torn to shreds in an instant and what had once been thriving communities reduced to mountains of rubble.
The two strikes on Aleppo on Friday were not the first use of ballistic missiles in Syria’s 23-month conflict. The State Department said in December that a missile thought to be a Scud had been fired into rural Aleppo, and there have since been as many as 40 other strikes, according to the Turkish government.
But the Friday strikes and two others last week marked the first time that so many missiles have been fired into residential neighborhoods, representing what a Human Rights Watch report on Tuesday called “a new low” in the war. Three struck residential areas of Aleppo, and a fourth landed in the nearby town of Tal Rifaat, the most fired in a single week, killing a total of at least 141 people, the report said.
In the low-income neighborhood of Ard al-Hamra, where the second of Friday’s missiles struck, survivors recounted that the explosions were preceded by a sucking sensation in the air, followed by a blast the likes of which none had heard before.
“There was a compression of the air, then a flash, then everything went dark,” said Fouad Hajo, 33, who lives nearby and says he pulled dozens of bodies from the rubble. “Everything was black — black smoke and black fire.”
“People flew in the air,” Mohammed Haj Saleh, 33, added as he squatted on the rubble of his home. “There was flesh everywhere, and people’s bodies were blown apart.”
The Syrian government denied this week that it is using Scuds in its battle to crush the revolt against President Bashar al-
Assad, in which as many as 70,000 people have been killed. But military experts say all the available evidence, including the scale of the devastation from the explosions and the sightings — captured on video — of missiles being fired from bases outside Damascus shortly before the blasts, points to them being Scuds. The Russian-designed missiles carry about 2,000 pounds of explosives and are manufactured by Syria using parts imported from Russia, North Korea and Iran.
The Obama administration also thinks the missiles are most likely Scuds. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, on his first overseas trip in his new job, called the strikes on Aleppo “unacceptable,” saying that the use of Scuds belied an offer of negotiations by the Syrian government.
“It’s pretty hard to understand how, when you see these Scuds falling on the innocent people of Aleppo, it’s possible to take their notion that they’re ready to have a dialogue very seriously,” he told reporters Monday.
‘There’s nothing bigger’
Scud missiles are so inaccurate that it is hard to imagine that their use in residential areas is intended to do anything other than kill civilians, said Joe Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War, who estimates their margin of error as up to a mile.
Their use may also point to the regime’s limited options in its efforts to repress what has become an increasingly effective rebel force, which has acquired the capabilities first to blunt ground offensives and, more recently, to shoot down planes. Extremist rebel groups also have used suicide bombings to devastating effect in government-
controlled Damascus and elsewhere.
In a war that has moved rapidly from bullets to shells to helicopter gunships and warplanes, “Scuds are the next escalation,” Holliday said. “There’s nothing bigger that the regime hasn’t used” — barring chemical weapons, which many fear could be the next step.
Residents of the stricken neighborhoods of Syria’s commercial capital offer other theories: that the missiles are a punishment for recent rebel advances on the international airport south of the city or that they are perhaps intended to turn people against the Free Syrian Army by rendering the areas it controls unlivable.
Whatever their purpose, they are sowing a new sense of panic among residents, who have grown accustomed to artillery explosions and airstrikes since rebels surged into Aleppo in July in an offensive that left them in control of a little more than half the city.
Shells damage apartments and airstrikes demolish buildings, but “Scuds wipe out whole streets,” said Col. Abdul Jabbar Akaidi, a senior commander in the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo, who seems at a loss to know how to address this new threat.
“You can hide from a shell and you can hide from an airstrike, but you can’t hide from a Scud,” he added.
‘What are we to do?’
In Ard al-Hamra, a grim silence has descended over the emptied streets, broken only by the whir of two bulldozers brought in to clear the debris and hunt for the bodies of at least a dozen people missing and feared buried beneath the rubble.
A handful of people, their faces dazed with shock and grief, had returned to clear their possessions from homes damaged on the periphery of the strike. A woman unhitched a row of coat hooks from a wall in an upper room of a house in which another wall had been sheared off, then gently detached a bouquet of plastic flowers from a remaining wall, the last items left of what had once been a family home.
In the house across the street, Mahmoud al-Asidi, 33, pointed despairingly to the spots of blood and flesh spattered on the wall of his broken stairway, the brains, he said, of his 11-year-old daughter, Oula, who was killed when the metal front door flew in and sliced open her head.
“What are we to do? We can’t fight this regime. We want the international community to give us a safe zone where we can live as civilians,” he said, repeating a plea made by many for a no-fly zone similar to that set up to protect civilians in Libya.
He would like to go to Turkey, joining the more than 900,000 Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries, “but I don’t have money,” he said. “You need money to travel.”
Poverty traps many of those who remain in Aleppo, which is largely beyond the reach of international aid agencies because travel here is deemed too dangerous. And now there are new dangers, new reasons for the people living here to be afraid.
“We are terrified all the time,” said Hoda Sharawi, 44, a mother of eight who lives a block from the first of Friday’s strikes, in the neighborhood of Tariq al-Bab.
“We fear for our children, we fear for our families, and we don’t know where to go.”