Turkey's prime minister branded Syria an imminent threat Tuesday, vowing to retaliate over the "heinous" downing of one of its jets, as Russia downplayed the incident and NATO rallied behind Ankara.
ANKARA- Amid reports of fierce clashes between Syrian rebel forces and army units around elite Republican Guard posts in Damascus, 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 has split Moscow and the West, with NATO condemning Syria and voicing its solidarity with member state Turkey while Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, 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 destabilising the situation," the Russian foreign ministry said in its first comment on the incident.
But Erdogan raised the heat on the Assad regime by accusing it of shooting down the jet while it was in international airspace, without warning.
"This is a hostile act... a heinous attack," Erdogan told a parliamentary meeting of his ruling AKP party.
"Turkey will exercise its rights, born out of international law, with determination, and take the necessary steps by determining the time, place and method by itself."
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 it was only for a short time and "by mistake". He insisted it was not in Syrian airspace when it came under attack.
"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.
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, which lasted about 90 minutes.
"We consider this act to be unacceptable and condemn it in the strongest terms.
"It is another example of the Syrian authorities' disregard for international norms, peace and security, and human life.
"Let me make this clear. The security of the alliance is indivisible. We stand together with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity."
Turkey requested the consultations under Article 4 of NATO's founding treaty, enabling any of the allies to call for talks should they consider their territorial integrity, political independence or security to be under threat.
But NATO has so far been notably reluctant to get sucked into the conflict in Syria.
And Iran, an ally of Turkey and Syria, called on Tuesday for regional countries rather than outside powers to help resolve the row.
Damascus has defended the downing of the jet, saying it was a response to "a gross violation" of its sovereignty.
"The Turkish warplane violated Syrian airspace, and in turn Syrian air defences fired back and the plane crashed inside Syrian territorial waters," foreign ministry spokesman Jihad al-Makdissi said on Monday.
The jet's two-man crew remain missing.
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.
"Violent clashes are taking place around positions of the Republican Guard in Qadsaya and Al-Hama," eight kilometres (five miles) from central Damascus, Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.
"This is the first time that the regime uses artillery in fighting so close to the capital," he said. "This development is important because it's the heaviest fighting in the area and close to the heart of the capital."
"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.
The Britain-based Observatory said 58 people had been killed across the country on Tuesday: 24 soldiers, 30 civilians and four rebels.
"The situation in Syria represents a colossal failure by the Security Council to protect civilians," Washington's UN ambassador Susan Rice said as the 15-nation body debated the crisis.
"It is a shame that this Council continues to stand by rather than to stand up," she said giving a withering assessment of the situation in Syria.