DAMASCUS/ANKARA: Syrian rebels fired mortars Wednesday but missed the presidential palace overlooking Damascus, as Turkey reportedly contemplated asking NATO to deploy Patriot missiles along its border with Syria to guard against a spillover of violence.
If approved, the deployment would represent a further deterioration in relations between Turkey and Syria – once close allies – and see more military hardware poured into a region where tensions are already high.
The moves came as Britain hardened its stance against Damascus, with Foreign Secretary William Hague saying he had ordered U.K. diplomats to talk directly to Syrian rebels.
In Doha, Qatar, members of the opposition Syrian National Council were busy electing a new leadership.
Damascus residents told Reuters heavy-caliber shells apparently aimed at the palace had hit the nearby residential Mezzeh 86 district, home to members of Assad’s Alawite sect. State-run media said at least three people had been killed and seven wounded in what it described as a terrorist attack. One of the projectiles hit a minibus, according to SANA, the state news agency.
A car bomb targeted the same neighborhood the day before, killing at least 11 people, according to state media.
The rebels released videos of what they claimed was the mortar attack, showing them using several different mortars and encountering a slight malfunction to one of them.
“This operation came in response to the massacres committed in our beloved city,” the Lions of Islam rebel group said in a statement. They said they also attacked a military airport and an intelligence facility in the capital, but there was no independent confirmation of those reports.
“The attacks on Mezzeh are a significant turning point because for the first time the Alawite community, which has never been targeted as such, is directly associated with the regime and targeted for this,” said Fabrice Balanche, an analyst with the Mediterranean and Middle East Studies and Research Group in Paris.
The conflict has also started to suck in neighboring countries. Turkey has been responding in kind to mortar shells hitting its territory as a result of fighting between Syrian rebels and Syrian government forces.
A senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official told Reuters that the government would make an “imminent” request to NATO to protect its 910-kilometer border with Syria with Patriot surface-to-air missiles.
The official said there was a potential missile threat to Turkey from Syria and Ankara had a right to take steps to counter such a threat. He gave no further details.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters during a visit to Brussels that it was only “normal” to discuss any defense measures in the face of potential risk from Syria, according to the state-run Anatolia news agency.
Turkey has already beefed up border security with tanks and anti-aircraft batteries in the face of the deadly 20-month conflict in Syria, which has occasionally spilled over into Turkish soil.
Davutoglu would not say if his government was planning to make an official request to the alliance, emphasizing that NATO had a responsibility in any case to protect all member states including Turkey.
But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is currently in Indonesia, said: “We have not made such request so far,” according to Anatolia.
Davutoglu’s spokesman Selcuk Unal told AFP earlier that discussions with NATO were under way as party of “contingency planning on the security of Turkey and NATO territories.”
A NATO official in Brussels also said: “At this point we are not aware of any Turkish request.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington had been in discussions for “many months” with Ankara and the NATO “to look at what other defensive support Turkey might require.”
“My understanding is that as of today, we haven’t had a formal request of NATO, but as you know, in the past we have reinforced Turkey with Patriots,” she told journalists. Turkey has systematically retaliated after every cross-border shelling since Syrian fire killed five Turks on Oct. 3, also calling an emergency NATO meeting and demanding U.N. Security Council action over what it called a “heinous” attack.
The U.S.-made Patriots are capable of intercepting both aircraft and missiles.
The United States and other Western powers say a resolution to the conflict has also been frustrated by divisions and in-fighting among opposition groups.
Syrian opposition groups will meet Thursday to form a new 50-member civilian body that will later choose a temporary government for Syria and coordinate with the revolt’s military wing.
As the SNC met in Doha, leading members said U.S. President Barack Obama should work to end the crisis following his re-election.
SNC chief Abdel-Basset Sayda told AFP he hoped the U.S. administration would now “address the Syrian crisis with seriousness and responsibility in order to end the massacres and destruction.”
Washington has voiced increasing frustration with the SNC for not fully representing the opposition, and the talks in Qatar will see an initiative put forward to form a new government-in-exile to represent the opposition.
But as SNC members began voting on a new leadership for the group, the group insisted it must have the “biggest share” in any revamp as well as guarantees that a government-in-exile would be internationally recognized before it is created.
Some 400 SNC members were to choose from 29 lists of groups ranging from liberals to the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as ethnic minorities and tribes.
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby is due to take part in broader meeting Thursday called by the Arab League and Qatar, also in Doha, of a wide range of Syrian opposition groups.
Preparations must start for a transitional government to be ready when “there are changes on the ground” in Syria, Elaraby said before heading for Doha.
The SNC statement appeared to challenge an initiative proposed by prominent dissident Riad Seif to unify the opposition which is expected to top the agenda of Thursday’s broader meeting.
The SNC also called for “holding the national congress in Syria on liberated territory when that is possible,” and insisted that “a transitional government would not be announced before firm guarantees of international recognition are received.”
Sayda said he hoped to “achieve together tomorrow [Thursday] something that will serve the interest of Syria and the Syrians.”
The SNC, which has been meeting in Doha since Sunday, has already agreed to include 13 new groups in its structure as it tries to become more inclusive.
In Syria, state media said a judge was assassinated in a residential neighborhood of Damascus.
The state-run SANA news agency says a “terrorist group” planted explosives under the car of judge Abed Nadhwah in the Barzeh neighborhood of the Syrian capital. The bomb was detonated remotely, killing him instantly.
The blast was the latest assassination targeting high-ranking supporters of Assad’s regime. The brother of Syria’s parliament speaker was gunned down Tuesday, also in the capital.
In the town of Nabk, north of Damascus, a suicide bomber drove a van loaded with explosives into an army position, killing six soldiers, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that at least 126 people had been killed across Syria Wednesday.
More than 38,000 people have been killed since the outbreak of the anti-regime revolt in March 2011, with over 1,000 dead in the past week, the Observatory said.
Civilians, at 26,596, represented the vast majority of those killed, while the rest were from the military – 9,445 soldiers – and 1,331 who defected.
Another 498 people killed could not be identified, it said.