BEIRUT/ANKARA - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told Syria to beware the wrath of Turkey after the shooting down of a warplane and said he had ordered the armed forces to react to any military threat from Syria near the two countries' border.
Syria said on Sunday it had killed several "terrorists" infiltrating from Turkey.
Erdogan, who fell out with Assad after he dismissed his advice to allow reforms, said Turkey was no warmonger.
"Our rational response should not be perceived as weakness, our mild manners do not mean we are a tame lamb," he told a meeting of his parliamentary party. "Everybody should know that Turkey's wrath is just as strong and devastating as its friendship is valuable."
Nato member states, summoned by Turkey to an urgent meeting in Brussels, condemned Syria over the incident that resulted in the loss of two airmen. The cautious wording of a statement demonstrated the fear of Western powers as well as Turkey that armed intervention in Syria could stir a sectarian conflict across the region.
"Those who want war may be disappointed by the prime minister's speech," Turkish journalist Mehmet Ali Birand wrote on social media. "But a big part of society breathed a sigh of relief."
Erdogan said the armed forces' rules of engagement had been changed as a result of the attack, which Turkey says took place without warning in international air space. "Every military element approaching Turkey from the Syrian border and representing a security risk and danger will be assessed as a military threat and will be treated as a military target," he said.
Syria says it had no choice but to take out the plane as it entered Syrian air space flying low and at high speed. It found out it was Turkish only after the engagement. Turkey insists its aircraft entered Syrian air space only briefly by mistake. Erdogan said Syrian military helicopters had violated Turkish airspace five times this year without Turkey firing on them. He saw Friday's attack as a deliberate attack.
"Our plane was targeted on purpose, and in a hostile way, not as a result of a mistake. The attitude of the Syrian officials following the incident is the most concrete evidence that our jet was attacked on purpose."
Russia said it was crucial that Iran should also attend a meeting on Syria of the five permanent UN Security Council members and regional players being organized by international mediator Kofi Annan in Geneva this weekend. Western countries oppose Iran, Syria's closest regional ally, taking part in the meeting and some diplomats have said it was not entirely clear whether it would take place.
Rebel forces and Syrian army units engaged in deadly combat around elite Republican Guard posts in the suburbs of Damascus on Tuesday, as 86 people were killed across the country, a monitoring group said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll consisted of 50 civilians, 32 soldiers and four rebels. "Violent clashes are taking place around positions of the Republican Guard in Qudsaya and Al-Hama," eight kilometres (five miles) from central Damascus, the head of the Observatory, Rami Abdel Rahman, told AFP.
Twenty-eight people were killed in and around the capital, including 14 people in Al-Hama and 11 in Qudsaya during shelling by regime troops.
"This is the first time that the regime uses artillery in fighting so close to the capital," Abdel Rahman said. "This development is important because it's the heaviest fighting in the area and close to the heart of the capital." Abu Omar, a spokesman for activists in the Damascus region, told AFP via Skype that "all communication has been cut off in and around Al-Hama and Qudsaya."
Meanwhile, the United States said Tuesday that defections, fighting closer to Damascus and the downing of a Turkish jet are all signs that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime is losing control. Speaking on board Air Force One as President Barack Obama flew to a re-election campaign event in Georgia, White House spokesman Jay Carney particularly noted recent "high-level defections."
Meanwhile, the United Nations mission in Syria will remain suspended because the conflict between government and opposition forces is intensifying, a top UN official told the UN Security Council on Tuesday. And UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has still not secured agreement on a political transition plan that all the major powers can back so that an international meeting on the conflict can go ahead this week, diplomats said.
Herve Ladsous, UN peacekeeping chief, said civilians in Syria face "increasing danger" and "conditions are not conducive to resume operations," diplomats at a closed Security Council meeting on the conflict said.
The almost 300 unarmed UN monitors halted operations on June 16 as President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown against opposition groups intensified.
Ladsous said the UN mission was still trying to help humanitarian workers. But he added that the Syrian government was throwing up obstacles such as refusing to allow satellite telephones, which the UN official said were "key tools."