* Western, Arab states formally recognise opposition bloc
* Western powers reluctant to supply weapons to rebels
* Insurgents close in on Damascus, explosion rocks capital
* US: Assad's forces use Scud missiles for first time
MARRAKECH, Morocco, Dec 12 (Reuters) - Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad's forces have fired Scud-style ballistic
missiles against rebels in recent days, U.S. and NATO officials
said on Wednesday, in what U.S. officials described as an
escalation in the 20-month civil war.
The United States, European powers and Arab states bestowed
their official blessing on Syria's newly-formed opposition
coalition on Wednesday, despite increasing signs of Western
unease at the rise of militant Islamists in the rebel ranks.
Rebels battled Assad's troops on the outskirts of his
Damascus power base. Their advances in the past two weeks have
prompted their international allies to talk of the 20-month-old
conflict finally entering a decisive phase.
In Damascus, a massive car bomb and two other explosions hit
the main gate of the Interior Ministry. Lebanon's al-Manar
television, which supports Assad's Hezbollah allies, said four
people had been killed.
"Allied intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets
have detected the launch of a number of unguided, short-range
ballistic missiles inside Syria this week," said a NATO official
in Brussels. "Trajectory and distance travelled indicate they
were Scud-type missiles."
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity,
confirmed the use of Scuds. U.S. officials said they were not
aware of any previous uses of the missiles.
It was not immediately clear why Assad's forces would deploy
Scuds, which can have a range of up to a few hundred km and are
best-known internationally from the 1991 Gulf War when Iraqi
leader Saddam Hussein fired them at Israel.
The Soviet-designed missiles are unguided and inaccurate,
and are not usually seen as a weapon of choice for the sort of
internal anti-guerrilla war that the government is waging
against small, mobile rebel bands.
Assad's forces have in the past relied on artillery,
helicopters and attack jets, all of which are much more useful
in close urban combat. However, the lightly armed rebels are
increasingly obtaining better weapons to fight back, including
the ability to shoot down aircraft.
Last week NATO decided to deploy U.S., German and Dutch
batteries of Patriot air defence missiles along the
Turkish-Syrian border, saying its main worry was the prospect of
Syrian missiles being fired across the frontier.
That decision means hundreds of U.S. and European troops
being sent to the border for the first time since the war began
20 months ago. Syria and Russia called it a pretext for the
Western alliance to become drawn into the war.
FRIENDS OF SYRIA
Western countries at a "Friends of Syria" meeting in
Marrakech, Morocco rallied around a new opposition National
Coalition that was formed last month and is led by a moderate
Islamist cleric, Mouaz Alkhatib.
U.S. President Barack Obama recognised the coalition on
Tuesday as Syria's legitimate representatives, joining France,
Britain, Turkey and Gulf Arab states. Alkhatib was given an
invitation on Wednesday to visit the United States.
But Washington and its allies also remain wary of Sunni
Islamist fighters among the rebels, some of whom they say are
connected to al Qaeda. The United States designated one powerful
rebel group, the Jabhat al-Nusra brigade, as a terrorist
organisation, a decision Alkhatib said should be reversed.
The Marrakech gathering brought together more than 100
countries, led by Western and Arab nations opposed to Assad, but
excluding Russia, China and Iran, which have backed Assad or
blocked efforts to tighten international pressure on him.
"Participants acknowledge the National Coalition as the
legitimate representative of the Syrian people and the umbrella
organisation under which the Syrian opposition are gathering,"
said a declaration after the meeting.
"Bashar al-Assad has lost legitimacy and should stand aside
to allow a sustainable political transition," the text said.
Referring to Western reports suggesting Assad might resort
to chemical or biological weapons, the text said "any use of
chemical weapons in Syria would be abhorrent and that this would
draw a serious response from the international community".
Syria, which has not signed a treaty banning chemical arms,
says it would never use such weapons against its own people and
accuses the West of stoking such fears to justify intervention.
The Marrakech text made no commitment to arm the insurgents,
and France said it was not ready to supply weapons.
"For now we have decided not to move on this," French
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Morocco. "We
shall see in the coming months."
A Western diplomat at the meeting said Western powers did
not rule out arming rebel units in the future, but want
assurances about who would get the weapons.
"No option is ruled out. But there are big issues about the
legality of intervening in a civil war. Any support to any group
depends on the command control and the discipline on the
ground," the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
The Syrian state news agency SANA said Obama's recognition
of the political opposition, which coincided with Washington's
classification of Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organisation,
"proves American hypocrisy".
Russia also criticised the U.S. recognition, saying it ran
counter to an agreement to seek political transition. Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov said that it appeared the United States
was betting on "armed victory" of Assad's opponents.
The rise of Jabhat al-Nusra to prominence has clearly
alarmed the United States, which is worried about Assad being
replaced by radicals linked to al Qaeda.
Jabhat al-Nusra recruits Islamist fighters from around the
Muslim world. Its precise numbers are not clear but its Syrian
and foreign guerrillas are powerful in the northern Syrian
cities of Aleppo and Idlib. They have used suicide attacks to
target checkpoints and now take the lead in attacks on army
bases in northern Syria.
Alkhatib, the opposition coalition leader, said Washington
should reconsider its designation of the group as terrorists.
"The decision to consider a party that is fighting the
regime as a terrorist party needs to be reviewed," he said.
"We might disagree with some parties and their ideas and
their political and ideological vision. But we affirm that all
the guns of the rebels are aimed at overthrowing the tyrannical
The West blames the Syrian government and allied Alawite
militias for most of the 40,000 deaths in the 20-month conflict
against mainly Sunni Muslim rebels. Civilians from both sects
have been victims of atrocities.
Activists say as many as 200 Alawites were either injured or
killed on Tuesday by rampaging gunmen in Aqrab, a central Syrian
village. Details of the incident were impossible to verify.
Fighting is moving closer to Assad's residence in the centre
of Damascus. Early on Wednesday government forces fired
artillery and rockets at southwestern suburbs of the capital
adjacent to the Mezzeh military airport, activists said.
A resident reported sirens and shooting after a "huge
explosion" in Kafar Souseh, location of the Interior Ministry,
in an area contested by rebels and forces loyal to Assad.
SANA said on Wednesday that "terrorists" had also detonated
two bombs in the Damascus district of Jaramana, killing one
person and wounding five.
The rebels now hold a near continuous arc of territory from
the east to the southwest of the capital. With conditions
deteriorating, Damascus residents face power and food crises.