ALEPPO, Syria — Dusk was falling when the ballistic missiles struck, signaling what appears to be a chilling escalation in Syria’s 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, people torn to shreds and thriving communities reduced to 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 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.
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Three missiles struck residential areas of Aleppo, and a fourth landed in the nearby town of Tal Rifaat, the most fired in a single week, killing at least 141 people, the report said. The Syrian government denied it is using Scuds in its battle to crush the revolt against President Bashar 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.
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.
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.