DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: Washington and Berlin prepared to deploy Patriot missiles and troops near Turkey’s border with Syria Friday as Russia backpedaled on statements indicating a rebel victory against Syrian President Assad was possible.
As Western countries continued to ramp up pressure on Assad, thousands of Syrians took to the streets, criticizing Washington for blacklisting a rebel jihadist group.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Moscow said Russia’s controversial support for President Assad’s regime was unchanged and that remarks by Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov a day earlier did not reflect official policy.
Nonetheless, Washington was swift in welcoming Bogdanov’s observations while announcing the deployment of two Patriot missile batteries and 400 support troops to fellow NATO member Turkey.
Germany and The Netherlands also have agreed to provide advanced “hit-to-kill” Patriot weapons. The German parliament approved sending the missiles along with up to 400 U.S. soldiers. Last week, the Dutch Cabinet also gave a go-ahead for Patriots, along with up to 360 soldiers to operate them.
Bogdanov’s comments, reported by several Russian news agencies, had appeared to mark a major change in policy by Moscow, which has repeatedly used its veto powers in the U.N. Security Council to shield its Cold War ally.
But Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich insisted Friday that there was no such shift. “We have never changed our position and we never will,” he said.
At the close of a two-day European Union summit British Prime Minister David Cameron said “inaction and indifference are not options” in Syria.
The situation in Syria, with more than 43,000 now dead, is “truly dreadful and getting worse,” he said.
A joint statement by EU leaders said they were “appalled by the increasingly deteriorating situation in Syria” and looking at “all options” to help the opposition and protect civilians. On a visit to an air base in southeast Turkey U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reiterated U.S. concerns that Assad’s regime might resort to chemical weapons in desperation.
“You can’t imagine anyone who would do that to their own people. But history is replete with those leaders who made those kind of decisions, terrible decisions,” he said.
On the ground, Syrian troops bombed southern districts of Damascus while rebels and soldiers battled around two military schools in the north of the country, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Nine rebels and eight soldiers were killed in heavy clashes near the School of Administrative Affairs, a military academy between Aleppo city and the town of Saraqeb to the southwest. They were among at least 42 people killed nationwide, including 20 rebels, the opposition Britain-based group reported.
In worrying signs of deepening sectarian tensions , a video posted online showed Sunni rebels burning the Shiite ‘Husseiniya’ mosque in north Syria. Fighters dressed in camouflage gear were shown congratulating each other for destroying the “dens of the Shiites and Rafida,” a derogatory term meaning “rejectionists.”
Thousands of Syrians meanwhile took to the streets, criticizing Washington for blacklisting a rebel jihadist group, Nusra Front. “There is no terrorism in Syria except that of Assad,” they chanted, as seen in videos posted on the Internet.
Protesters in the Eastern Ghuta region, just outside Damascus, held up a sign reading: “Thank you to all the ‘terrorists’ in Syria who are fighting Assad.”
The U.S. blacklisting of Syria’s Islamist group as a “terrorist organization,” for alleged links with Al-Qaeda, has drawn fierce criticism from rebels and opposition groups, who have condemned the move as ill-timed and ill-conceived.
An opposition leader tolerated by the Syrian regime said that the blacklisting may be used to justify foreign intervention in the country’s crisis.
“The question is, why did they [the Americans] put Nusra Front on their list of terror organizations,” demanded Qadri Jamil, Syria’s deputy prime minister for economic affairs and head of the Popular Front for Change and Liberation.
“I am afraid it is to justify interference in Syrian affairs,” he told a news conference in Moscow, broadcast by Syrian state television.