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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Iran's army chief of staff warned NATO on Saturday that stationing Patriot anti-missile batteries on Turkey's border with Syria was setting the stage for world war.
General Hassan Firouzabadi, whose country has been a staunch supporter of President Bashar al-Assad throughout the 21-month uprising against his rule, called on the Western military alliance to reverse its decision to deploy the defense system.
"Each one of these Patriots is a black mark on the world map, and is meant to cause a world war," Firouzabadi said, according to the Iranian Students' News Agency. "They are making plans for a world war and this is very dangerous for the future of humanity and for the future of Europe itself."
Despite the warning, Firouzabadi did not threaten any action against Turkey in his speech to senior commanders at the National Defence University in Tehran. "We are Turkey's friend and we want security for Turkey," he said.
NATO's U.S. commander said on Friday the alliance was deploying the anti-missile system along Syria's northern frontier because Assad's forces had fired Scud missiles that landed near Turkish territory.
Damascus denies firing the long-range, Soviet-built rockets. But, forced on the defensive by mainly Sunni Muslim rebels, Syria's 47-year-old Alawite president has resorted increasingly to air strikes and artillery to stem their advances.
Warplanes bombed insurgents on the airport road in southeast Damascus on Saturday and government forces pounded a town to the southwest, activists said, in a month-long and so far fruitless campaign to dislodge rebels around the capital.
Activists also reported heavy fighting in the Palestinian district of Yarmouk in southern Damascus between rebels and fighters from a pro-Assad Palestinian faction.
In the north, rebels said they had seized control of an infantry college in the northern Aleppo province, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there was still fierce fighting around the site by nightfall on Saturday, when it estimated at least 70 people had been killed across the country.
Desperate food shortages are growing in parts of Syria and residents of Aleppo say fist fights and dashes across the civil war front lines have become part of the daily struggle to secure a loaf of bread.
NATO military commander Admiral James Stavridis said a handful of Scud missiles were launched inside Syria in recent days towards opposition targets and "several landed fairly close to the Turkish border, which is very worrisome".
It was not clear how close they came. Turkey, a NATO member once friendly toward Assad but now among the main allies of the rebels, has complained for months of artillery and gunfire across the border, some of which has caused deaths. It sought the installation of missile defenses some weeks ago.
"Syria is clearly a chaotic and dangerous situation, but we have an absolute obligation to defend the borders of the alliance from any threat emanating from that troubled state," Stavridis wrote in a blog on Friday.
Batteries of U.S.-made Patriot missiles, designed to shoot down the likes of the Scuds popularly associated with Iraq's 1991 Gulf War under Saddam Hussein, are about to be deployed by the U.S., German and Dutch armies, each of which is sending up to 400 troops to operate and protect the rocket systems.
Damascus has accused Western powers of backing what it portrays as a Sunni Islamist "terrorist" campaign against it and says Washington and Europe have publicly voiced concerns of late that Assad's forces might resort to chemical weapons solely as a pretext for preparing a possible military intervention.
In contrast to NATO's air campaign in support of Libya's successful revolt last year against Muammar Gaddafi, Western powers have shied away from intervention in Syria. They have cited the greater size and ethnic and religious complexity of a major Arab state at the heart of the Middle East - but have also lacked U.N. approval due to Russia's support for Assad.
Forty thousand people have now been killed in what has become the most protracted and destructive of the Arab revolts.
As well as the growing rebel challenge, Syria faces an alliance of Arab and Western powers who stepped up diplomatic support for Assad's political foes at a meeting in Morocco on Wednesday and warned him he could not win Syria's civil war.
Assad's opponents have consistently underestimated his tenacity throughout the uprising, but their warnings appeared to be echoed by even his staunch ally Moscow when the Kremlin's Middle East envoy Mikhail Bogdanov conceded he might be ousted.
Russia said on Friday Bogdanov's comments did not reflect a change in policy. France, one of the first countries to grant formal recognition to Syria's political opposition, said Moscow's continued support for Assad was perplexing.
"They risk really being on the wrong side of history. We don't see their objective reasoning that justifies them keeping this position because even the credible arguments they had don't stand up anymore," a French diplomatic source said, arguing that by remaining in power, Assad was prolonging chaos and fuelling the radicalization of Sunni Islamist rebels.
European Union leaders who met in Brussels on Friday said all options were on the table to support the Syrian opposition, raising the possibility that non-lethal military equipment or even arms could eventually be supplied.
In their strongest statement of support for the Syrian opposition since the uprising began, EU leaders instructed their foreign ministers to assess all possibilities to increase the pressure on Assad.
With rebels edging into the capital, a senior NATO official said Assad was likely to fall and the Western military alliance should make plans to protect against the threat of his chemical arsenal falling into the wrong hands.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos on Saturday that U.S. and EU sanctions on Syria were to blame for hardship in his country and urged the United Nations to call for them to be lifted.
Moualem also called on the United Nations to expand its relief efforts in Syria to include reconstruction "of what has been destroyed by the armed terrorist groups", state news agency SANA said, referring to the rebels.
The World Food Programme (WFP) says as many as a million Syrians may go hungry this winter, as worsening security conditions make it harder to reach conflict zones.
The conflict has also driven a flood of Syrians to seek shelter in neighboring countries, which already host half a million registered refugees and perhaps hundreds of thousands more who have not declared themselves.
Two and a half million people have been displaced inside Syria, leading to fears of widespread suffering this winter.
"The international community needs to be prepared to step up its efforts," United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told Reuters Television during a visit to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley on Saturday.
"This is not a conflict like many others. It's a very brutal conflict with a humanitarian tragedy associated," he said, calling for greater assistance to Syria's refugees and their host countries - Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.
Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer