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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Video Suggests Missile Hit Syrian University

Video posted online by Syrian opposition activists appears to have been recorded during the second of two explosions at Syria’s Aleppo University last week.

At least one of the two explosions that killed more than 80 people at Syria’s Aleppo University last week was caused by a missile, according to two analysts who examined new video of the attack posted online by Syrian opposition activists.

Traces of what appears to be a missile descending moments before the huge blast can be seen in three still frames taken from the brief video clip, which seems to have been recorded on the university campus as the second rocket shattered a dormitory.

A still frame from video posted online by Syrian activists appears to show, at the very top right of the image, a descending missile, moments before it struck Aleppo University last week. A still frame from video posted online by Syrian activists appears to show, at the very top right of the image, a descending missile, moments before it struck Aleppo University last week.

As my colleague C.J. Chivers noted on his blog, if the new video of the second blast is authentic, those frames and the loud whirr of the missile just before the explosion, appear to rule ! out initial claims from the government that the explosions were caused by car bombs.

Like another clip of the second explosion posted online last week, the new video does not resolve the question of whether the rockets were fired by Syrian Air Force jets, as some activists claimed, or were ballistic missiles. Late on the day of the attack, Syrian officials cited by the state-run news media claimed that the rebels had fired two rockets at the school, although the insurgents are not known to possess ballistic missiles.

While no image of a jet has yet appeared, some opposition activists insisted that they did see a plane before the explosions. An Aleppo blogger who has been critical of the armed rebellion on his @edwardedark Twitter feed wrote last week that he heard what he took to be a jet just before the blast.

As my colleagues Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt reported in December, Obama administration officials said that President Bashar al-Assad’s military had fired at least six Soviet-designed Scud missiles â€" not known for their precision â€" at rebel fighters north of Aleppo last month from a base outside Damascus.

An undated YouTube clip, apparently recorded from Syrian state television by an Israeli defense news magazine, appears to show that Syria’s military has openly test-fired Scuds and other missiles.

Video of Syria’s military testing missiles apparently recorded from Syrian state television by an Israeli defense news magazine.

According to Joseph Holliday, a former Army intelligence officer and a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who studied the clip for The Lede, the video strongly suggests that a missile struck the university. “There’s no jet noise before or after the strike and only missiles would be supersonic - the ripping noise at the end is just the missile ripping through the air,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Add to all that the size of the blast definitely seems more like a ballistic missile than a bomb.”

Mr. Holliday added:

This also solves the mystery of who would target the university and why, and I think the answer is that the regime didn’t mean to target the university, but their Scuds just aren’t accurate enough and they screwed up - big time. I say Scuds here, but I can’t confirm whether or not it’s a different type of ballistic missile, it’s just that they have more Scuds in inventory than anything else.

! Mr. Holli! day showed the video to another analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, Christopher Harmer, a former Naval officer, who observed: “I am 90 percent confident that is either a Scud or a large surface to surface rocket - that is much bigger than a Qassam or Katyusha. Might be a Fajr-5 rocket.” He arrived at that conclusion, he wrote, by the following process of elimination:

R.P.G. No â€" explosion is too big. Mortar No â€" explosion is too big for the size of mortars in theater. Artillery No â€" explosion is too big for any of the artillery pieces in theater. Also, if it were fired by artillery, they would have heard firing. Air-dropped bomb Possible, but unlikely. No visual indication of jets in the area.

Based on size of explosion, sound of inbound projectile, assess this is either a large rocket (Fajr-5) series or a Scud ballistic missile.

On the possibility that the bob might have been dropped by a jet, Mr. Harmer wrote:

I don’t buy it. You can hear something like an aircraft engine at 0:40, but it sounds more like wind to me than jet engine. Also, if this were an air attack, I think there are enough photographers up there that somebody would have caught it on video. The day is clear - no clouds or fog. The aircraft would have been visible.

Separate technical issue - Syrian Air Force has old jets. They make a lot of noise. At the altitudes they have been flying at, we almost certainly would have heard the jet engine noise. It is possible it was an air attack, but if so, it would have been a fairly high altitude attack, high enough that the jet was not visible to any of the amateur photographers on the ground, and high enough that we did not clearly hear the jet engine.

In a note to The Lede, Mr. Chivers, a former marine who has reported from Syria and written extensively about the insurgent arsenal for The Times and his personal blog, observed: “this now appears to have been a military strike, with ordnance that the Free Syrian Army does not have.”

He added:

The thing about these kind of attacks is they seem to be inherently inaccurate. I’ve been going to craters in Syria in recent days trying to figure out exactly what types of missiles are involved. So far, still stumped, though I have some scraps of their remains and have circulated pictures to some friends. But they simply do not seem to come near their targets in many cases â€" they miss by a kilometer or more. And that may be what happened here.