The Syrian regime has begun using missiles and barrel bombs against rebels, a top US official said Wednesday, signaling a dangerous escalation of the deadly 21-month-old conflict, AFP reports.
As an AFP journalist in northwestern Syria reported hearing several fierce explosions daily from up to 15 kilometers (10 miles) away, the New York Times said the regime was unleashing Scud missiles.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said "we're seeing missiles employed now" but refused to divulge intelligence on what type of missile.
"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," she told journalists.
Citing anonymous US administration officials, the New York Times said the regime of President Bashar al-Assad had fired around six Scud missiles from the Damascus area against rebels in northern Syria in recent days.
An AFP journalist in northwestern Idlib province said he had heard powerful explosions for the past three days coming from the direction of the Sheikh Suleiman army base captured by rebel groups at the beginning of the week.
Abu Jalal, a commander of the Free Syrian Army, said Monday in Darret Ezza village, rocked by a fierce blast, that it was caused by a surface-to-surface missile which had hit the base three kilometers (two miles) away.
"We don't know where these are being fired from," Abu Jalal told AFP, but he estimated the missile had a slighter smaller range than a Scud of a few dozen kilometers (miles) packed with some 300-500 kilos (600-1,000 pounds) of TNT.
Since the base had been seized, regime forces had been flushed out of an area stretching west of Aleppo to the Turkish border, meaning that they needed to use missiles with a minimum 30-kilometer (18-mile) range, he said.
Another Free Syrian Army leader, Sheikh Azam Ajamar, said Sunday that Soviet-made Luna missiles had been fired west of Aleppo. These are eight meters (24-feet) long, about the size of a Scud, with a 70-kilometer (43-mile) range.
But the use of missiles marks a significant escalation of the fighting, which has claimed some 42,000 lives, according to a British-based watchdog.
"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.
The report came just after US President Barack Obama said his administration recognized the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, opening the way for increased US aid to the rebels.
"As the regime becomes more and more desperate, we see it resorting to increased lethality and more vicious weapons moving forward," Nuland said.
She said the barrel bombs were "incendiary bombs which contain flammable material that can be like napalm" or can be packed with nails and launched from the air or from a launcher.
One of the aims of recognizing the Syrian coalition was "to try to better channel the non-lethal assistance that we provide to the political groups that they are working with on the ground in Syria," Nuland said.
Washington wanted to boost its assistance, and provide not just communications, but also "essential services in those towns that have been liberated." That might include such things as training for new police forces, garbage collection, keeping schools open and electricity running, she said.
But Washington has also moved to alienate Islamist and jihadist groups working with opposition rebels, fearing they will try to impose an extremist ideology on a post-Assad Syria.
On Tuesday it blacklisted the Al-Nusra Front, which was one of the groups which had seized the strategic Suleiman army base. Although a small, minority the front, which the US says is linked to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, has proved very effective in the fight on the ground.