BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's military will "crush" armed rebels, President Bashar Assad's defense minister warned Saturday, as the regime shelled rebel positions in two cities and near the Lebanese border in a widening offensive.
Neighboring Turkey, meanwhile, set new rules of engagement after three shells from Syria hit Turkish territory Saturday. Turkey retaliated with artillery, as it has for the past four days, and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said this would now be the standard response.
Davutoglu insisted that "we haven't taken a step toward war," but Turkey's threat to fire back for each errant Syrian shell was bound to keep border tensions high. Turkey is one of Assad's harshest critics and a key supporter of Syria's opposition.
The latest Syria-Turkey crisis erupted earlier this week, after a Syrian shell killed five civilians in a Turkish border town.
The Syrian regime has apologized and tried to defuse tensions by pulling some tanks back from the border, according to a Turkish Foreign Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations.
Still, the week's daily cross-border exchanges have heightened fears of a regional conflagration.
Syrian mortar rounds are likely to hit Turkey again as regime forces try to retake rebel-controlled areas near the border. Two of the shells that fell in Turkey on Saturday were fired in clashes between government troops and opposition fighters in a Syrian border village.
Syria's civil war has been stalemated for months, but Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij insisted Saturday that the regime is gaining the upper hand.
The government denies it is facing a home-grown rebellion, saying it is being targeted by a foreign conspiracy against the regime's support for anti-Israeli groups.
"The most dangerous parts of the conspiracy have ... passed and the killing is on its way to decline," said al-Freij, who was named to the job after his predecessor was assassinated in July. He offered amnesty to rebels who repent but said those who don't "will be crushed under the feet of our soldiers."
The Syrian president, meanwhile, made a rare public appearance Saturday to commemorate the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, also known as the October War.
Assad laid a wreath at the country's statue of the Unknown Soldier in Damascus, then passed along a line of saluting army commanders in dress uniform, shaking hands with each. The ceremony, broadcast live on Syrian TV, seemed designed to show Assad remains in control.
Syria's state-run news agency SANA linked Saturday's anniversary to the current conflict, saying that in both cases "Syria is facing an enemy armed with Western and Israeli weapons."
Along with regime's new warnings to the rebels, Syrian troops backed by warplanes and combat helicopters launched attacks on rebel-held areas near the Syrian town of Quseir, close to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, on Saturday, Lebanese security officials said.
Opposition activists also reported intense government shelling in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest and a commercial hub, and in the central city of Homs.
The battlefield stalemate is most apparent in those two cities.
Syrian forces have been bombing and shelling from a distance but have been unable to dislodge opposition fighters holed up in devastated neighborhoods. Retaking Aleppo and Homs could give the regime some breathing room.