BEIRUT: Turkey’s prime minister branded Syria an imminent threat Tuesday, vowing to retaliate over the “heinous” downing of one of its jets. And amid reports of fierce clashes between Syrian rebel forces and army units around elite Republican Guard posts in Damascus, Syrian President Basher Assad said his country was in “a state of real war.”
“We live in a state of real war, and [as] we live in a state of war, all our polices, directives and all sectors will be directed in order to gain victory in this war,” he said in comments carried by the state news agency SANA in an address to swear in his new government. It was not immediately clear to whom Assad was referring to.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his country had changed its rules of engagement and would now treat any Syrian security threat as a military target.
Friday’s downing of a Turkish Phantom F-4 fighter jet along the Mediterranean coast has sharply increased tensions between Syria and Turkey and has split Moscow and the West. NATO condemned Syria, voicing its solidarity with member state Turkey while Syrian ally Russia said the incident should not be seen as intentional.
“We believe it is important that the incident is not viewed as a provocation or an intentional action, and that it does not lead to destabilizing the situation,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
Erdogan accused Syria of shooting down the jet without warning while it was in international airspace.
“This is a hostile act ... a heinous attack,” Erdogan told a parliamentary meeting of his ruling AKP party.
Erdogan, once a close ally of Assad, has become one of the Syrian leader’s biggest critics and his reaction to the downing of the jet is his fiercest outburst to date.
The premier admitted the Turkish plane had violated Syrian airspace but said had been only for a short time and “by mistake.” Damascus has defended the downing of the jet, saying it was a response to “a gross violation” of its sovereignty but Erdogan insisted it was not in Syrian airspace when it came under attack. The jet’s two-man crew remain missing.
“The rules of engagement of the Turkish Armed Forces have changed given this new development,” he said.
Any security or military risk posed by Syria on the Turkish border would be “considered a threat and treated as a military target.”
“This latest development shows that the Assad regime has become a clear and imminent threat to the security of Turkey as well as for its own people,” he said.Erdogan’s statements hinted at a de-facto buffer zone between the two countries, an idea he has previously said Turkey would consider to protect civilians, although it was not clear how far the target zone he was referring to would extend.
Turkey is the base for the rebel Free Syrian Army and shelters more than 30,000 refugees – a number Erdogan worries could rise sharply as fighting spreads.
After a request from Turkey, NATO’s Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen hosted talks with ambassadors of the alliance’s 28 members in Brussels.
“Allies have expressed their strong support and solidarity with Turkey,” he told reporters after the meeting.
“We consider this act to be unacceptable and condemn it in the strongest terms.”
NATO has so far been notably reluctant to get sucked into the conflict in Syria.
The five permanent U.N. Security Council members and regional players are hoping to meet in Geneva this weekend in a new push to resolve the crisis mediated by international envoy Kofi Annan.
Russia said it was crucial that Iran should also attend the meeting but Western countries oppose Iran. Amid the deadlock and violence, the U.N. monitoring team tasked with observing a cease-fire brokered by Annan has been suspended indefinitely.
In Syria itself, Syrian armed rebel forces and regime army units were locked in fierce clashes around elite Republican Guard posts in the suburbs of Damascus, according to pro-opposition activists. Across the country, 86 people including 50 civilians, 32 soldiers and four rebel soldiers were killed, according to U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“Violent clashes are taking place around positions of the Republican Guard in Qudsaya and Al-Hama,” 8 kilometers from central Damascus, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Observatory.
“These suburbs are home to barracks of troops which are very important for the regime like the Republican Guard. This is also where the families of [army] officers live,” he said.
A resident of nearby Wadi Barada told The Daily Star “Republican guards are shelling from Al-Hameh Bridge, the 4th division from the Douma-Qudsaya road. We lost contact with the people down the valley.”