* Air strikes and artillery hit rebel strongholds
* Rockets landing near Turkey "worrisome", NATO says
* EU accord hints at possible military aid to rebels
* U.N. humanitarian chief Amos in Damascus
BEIRUT, Dec 15 (Reuters) - Syrian warplanes bombed
insurgents east of 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
Jets bombarded the Beit Sahm district on the road leading to
the international airport and the army fired rockets at several
rebel strongholds around Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad's
bastion through 21 months of an increasingly bloody uprising.
The 47-year-old Alawite leader, forced on the defensive by
the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels, has resorted increasingly to air
strikes and artillery to stem their advances on the ground.
NATO's U.S. commander also accused his forces on Friday of
firing Scud missiles that landed near the Turkish border, in
explaining why the Western alliance was sending anti-missile
batteries and troops to Syria's northern frontier.
The Syrian government denies firing such long-range,
Soviet-built rockets. But Admiral James Stavridis wrote in a
blog that 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 of occasional artillery and gunfire
across the border, some of which has caused deaths, for months.
It sought the installation of missile defences along its
frontier 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,"
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.
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 radicalisation 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 that Assad is 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.
Desperate food shortages are growing in parts of Syria and
residents of the northern city 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.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told U.N. humanitarian
chief Valerie Amos that U.S. and EU sanctions on Syria were to
blame for hardships 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", the state news
agency SANA said, using a label employed by authorities to
describe the rebels.
Amos said in Rome on Friday the United Nations is committed
to maintaining aid operations in Syria.
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.
"NOTHING OFF THE TABLE"
At the EU summit, Britain's David Cameron pushed for an
early review of the arms embargo against Syria to possibly open
the way to supply equipment to rebels in the coming months.
Germany and others were more reluctant and blocked any quick
move. But there was widespread agreement that whatever action
can be taken under current legislation should be pursued, and
the arms embargo would still be reviewed at a later stage.
"I want a very clear message to go to President Assad that
nothing is off the table," Cameron told reporters at the end of
the two-day meeting. "I want us to work with the opposition ...
so that we can see the speediest possible transition in Syria.
"There is no single simple answer, but inaction and
indifference are not options."
Forty thousand people have now been killed in what has
become the most protracted and destructive of the Arab popular
revolts. The Assad government severely limits press and
humanitarian access to the country.
Among factors holding Western powers back from arming the
rebels is the presence in their ranks of anti-Western Islamist
radicals. Following a U.S. decision this week to blacklist one
such group, Jabhat al-Nusra, as "terrorist", thousands of
Syrians demonstrated on Friday against ostracising it.