Syria’s regime has fired Scud missiles on its own people for the first time in a sign of its increasing “desperation” to crush the rebellion.
In a significant escalation, Western officials said forces loyal to the regime had fired at least six of the Russian-designed ballistic missiles on rebel targets.
It means that President Bashar al-Assad has now used every weapon in his arsenal, short of a chemical attack, in an attempt to end the 21-month uprising.
A Foreign Office spokesman said reports indicated that the first Scud was launched on Monday and that more had been fired since.
“The trajectory and distance travelled suggest these were Scud-type missiles,” the spokesman said. “We condemn this in the strongest possible terms. It demonstrates the appalling brutality of the regime and its desperation to go to any lengths to deny his people their legitimate aspiration.”
Nato confirmed Wednesday night that surveillance had detected the launch of a number of missiles in Syria this week.
“Allied intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets have detected the launch of a number of unguided, short-range ballistic missiles inside Syria this week. Trajectory and distance travelled indicate they were Scud-type missiles,” the Nato official said.
Scud missiles are medium-range weapons and notoriously inaccurate. Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator, used a Scud missile against rebels in Benghazi last year.
The last significant use in warfare was by Saddam Hussein in the Gulf conflict of 1991, including an attack on Tel Aviv.
Explanations for the deployment of the weapons varied from “ranging shots” for future chemical weapons attacks, to targeted acts of terror to quell the advancing insurgency. “The most likely explanation is that it indicates the diminishing capability of the regime’s air force to hit rebel areas, either because they are running out of pilots or the rebel air defences are doing too much damage,” said Benjamin Barry, a weapons expert at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, a London think tank.
Western officials have warned the Syrian regime that a chemical weapons attack could provoke military intervention to remove Mr Assad.
It is believed Syria had at least 48 Scud missiles at the outset of the crisis, meaning more than 10 per cent of its entire arsenal has now been used.
“The total [fired] is is probably north of six now,” a US official told the New York Times.
The targets were in areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army, the main armed insurgent group. Adam Holloway, a Conservative MP, said the attacks were a demonstration that the regime was cornered. “Assad must be getting desperate,” he said. “He put himself on a par with Saddam Hussein and, given the losses he’s suffered, it makes you think there is nothing he wouldn’t do.”
The news emerged as 114 countries held a summit in Morocco on Wednesday to recognise the Syrian Opposition Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, a move that could pave the way for arming the rebels. The coalition won the recognition of more than 100 countries.
Speaking at the meeting, William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, demanded greater “practical” support for the Syrian opposition.
He said Britain still wanted to see a negotiated transition of power from Mr Assad but for the first time declared that the UK would not limit the scope of its efforts to ensure Syrians were defended from government attack.
Intelligence reports indicating that the regime was prepared to use chemical weapons would provoke a tough response, he indicated.
“We do not rule out any option to save lives. The Assad regime should not doubt our resolve, or miscalculate how we would react to any use of chemical or biological weapons against the Syrian people,” he said.
“The next few months will determine whether a peaceful political transition can be agreed, or if Syria is to face more bloodshed.”
Mr Hague said British aid was being stepped up to provide equipment to sustain opposition areas, including communications equipment, electricity generator and water purification systems.
Technical experts from a stabilisation team had been deployed to nearby countries.
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said the opposition would need to build a military framework to safeguard against the rise of extremists linked to al-Qaeda before it was granted military aid.
In the final communiqué, more than 100 countries recognised a new Syrian opposition coalition, opening the way for greater humanitarian assistance to the forces fighting Bashar Assad and possibly even military aid, Mr Fabius said.
Qatar has called for opposition allies to provide surface-to-air missiles to rebels to stop aerial attacks by the regime.
Casualties were reported on Wednesday night at the Syrian ministry of interior after a series of car bombs exploded at the entrance to its building in Damascus.
Two separate explosions were also heard in the capital on Wednesday as a rebel advance moved towards the heart of the regime stronghold.