Assad reshuffled cabinet: New faces, same policy
DAMASCUS - Syrian warplanes raided rebel-held areas on the outskirts of Damascus on Saturday in a bid to end a stalemate in the country's bloody civil conflict, as President Bashar al-Assad reshuffled his cabinet.
Assad changed seven ministers in his government, the official SANA news agency reported, without saying why.
It said Assad had decided to split the ministry of labour and social affairs into two, and he brought in a woman, Kinda Shmat, to head the latter. Hassan Hijazi becomes labour minister.
Sleiman Abbas takes the oil and mineral resources portfolio, and Ismail Ismail becomes finance minister. Hussein Farzat gets housing and urban development, Ahmad al-Qadri goes to agriculture and public works goes to Hussein Arnus.
Assad has announced several reshuffles since the uprising against his rule broke out nearly two years ago, the most recent in August last year.
The latest violence in Syria came as efforts for a political solution appeared to founder, hours after Damascus offered talks without preconditions. The opposition had demanded that Assad's departure be the focus of any talks.
Lebanon's Maronite patriarch, meanwhile, announced he would visit Damascus for the enthronement of Syria's Greek Orthodox leader, in a show of support for the country's minority Christian community.
Air raids hit northern and eastern areas outlying the capital, amid fighting between loyalist troops and insurgents, a watchdog said.
Warplanes also hit the town of Sabineh south of Damascus, and fierce clashes broke out between rebels and troops in the embattled town of Daraya, where the army shelled insurgent positions, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The latest clashes came after the army this week launched a major offensive against rebel zones surrounding the capital, in efforts to break a stalemate in the nearly two-year uprising.
Pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan said the army was "determined to crush terrorism around the capital and in big cities."
In the north of the country, rebels stormed parts of Menegh airbase less than 25 kilometres (15 miles) from the Turkish border in northern Aleppo province, the Observatory said.
The base is a key target for insurgents and has sustained continuous attacks for months.
The Observatory said at least 15 people were killed on Saturday a day after it reported 136 deaths from violence nationwide.
Efforts towards finding a political solution to the conflict, which the UN says has killed more than 60,000 people, appeared to be deadlocked.
Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi said Damascus was prepared to have talks with political opponents so long as they set no preconditions.
"The door is open, the negotiating table is there, welcome to any Syrian who wants to have dialogue with us," he said on state television.
"When you speak of dialogue, it means dialogue without conditions, which excludes no one... There must be no preconditions," he said.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition said on February 1, the day after an offer of dialogue by its leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, that any talks on Syria's political future must be about the departure of the Assad regime.
New US Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday in his first news conference since taking up the post that Washington was weighing its next steps on Syria.
"There's too much killing and there's too much violence and we obviously want to try to find a way forward," he said.
"We are evaluating now, we are taking a look at what steps, if any, diplomatic particularly, might be able to be taken in an effort to reduce that violence and deal with that situation."
Meanwhile, Lebanon's Maronite patriarch Beshara Rai will visit Damascus on Sunday for the enthronement of Syria's Greek Orthodox leader, Yuhanna X Yazigi, the church said.
It will be the first visit to Syria by a Maronite patriarch since its independence in 1943, Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar reported.
"The participation of several church leaders is a way to express solidarity between churches while Syria is in crisis, a crisis for Christians in Syria," the daily said.
Syria's Christian minority makes up about five percent of the war-torn country's population. Many Christians have remained neutral in the conflict while others have taken Assad's side, for fear of the rise of Islamism.