BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian military has held war games that included test-firing of missiles and air force and ground troop operations "similar to a real battle," state-run media reported Monday — a show of force as Damascus defies pressures over its deadly crackdown on regime opponents.
Syria is under both Arab and international pressure to end its crackdown on an eight-month uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime that the U.N. says has killed more than 4,000 people.
The maneuvers, which state TV said took place over the weekend, came as Syria said it was still negotiating with the Arab League over the bloc's request to send observers into the country. Tightening sanctions by Arab and other nations have failed to halt the crackdown on anti-government protesters.
Syria's military conducts war game every year but these maneuvers were of a higher-level, combining missile tests, the air force and ground troops.
State TV said the exercise was meant to test "the capabilities and the readiness of missile systems to respond to any possible aggression."
The drill showed Syrian missiles and troops were "ready to defend the nation and deter anyone who dares to endanger its security" and that the missiles hit their test targets with precision, the TV said.
In October, Assad warned the Middle East "will burn" if the West intervenes in Syria and threatened to turn the region into "tens of Afghanistans."
Syria is known to have surface-to-surface missiles such as Scuds, capable of hitting deep inside its archenemy Israel.
Although the U.S. and the European Union imposed waves of sanctions against Syria in the past months, Washington and its allies have shown little appetite for intervening in another Arab nation in turmoil as they did in Libya.
Meanwhile, Assad has a number of powerful allies that give him the means to push back against outside pressure.
A conflict in Syria risks touching off a wider Mideast confrontation with Israel and Iran in the mix.
Syria wouldn't have to look far for prime targets to strike, sharing a border with U.S.-backed Israel and NATO-member Turkey. Assad's regime is the closest Arab ally of Iran and also has ties to Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement and other radical groups, including the militant Palestinian Hamas.
State-run news agency SANA quoted Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha as telling the forces that participated in the maneuvers "to be in full readiness to carry out any orders give to them."
The uprising against Assad's regime began in mid-March during a wave of anti-government protests in the Arab world that toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
In case of international intervention, Assad and his main Mideast backer, Iran, could launch retaliatory attacks on Israel or — more likely — unleash Hezbollah fighters or Palestinian militant allies to do the job.
Northern neighbor Turkey has imposed sanctions on Syria and opened its doors to anti-Assad activists and breakaway military rebels, which also could bring Syrian reprisals.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue