Fighters with the Free Syria Army gather at an undisclosed location. — Photo by AFP
Fighters with the Free Syria Army gather at an undisclosed location. — Photo by AFP

BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a decree to form a new government on Saturday, shaking up many cabinet posts but keeping the heads of the interior, defence and foreign ministries, state television reported.

The reappointment of Defence Minister Daoud Rajha will quash widespread rumours, previously denied by the government, that he had been assassinated by rebels who are struggling to bring down President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

Meanwhile, an Arab diplomat has said that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are paying salaries to rebel forces fighting in the Syrian revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.

“The payment has been going on for months and the agreement was made on April 2 by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with logistical organisation from Turkey where some Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions are based,” said the source, who requested anonymity.

“The point of this is to encourage as many factions of the Syrian army to defect and to organise the FSA, control it and prevent any extremist organisations from joining it.”

A spokesman for Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry said on Saturday he was not aware of reports that the kingdom was funding Syrian rebels.

The United Nations says more than 10,000 people have been killed since violence broke out after Syrian government forces began a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters over a year ago.

Syria says at least 2,600 members of its military and security forces have been killed by what it calls foreign-backed “Islamist terrorists”.

Western and Arab states, meeting on April 1, called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to adopt a peace plan brokered by special envoy Kofi Annan, withdraw his troops from Syrian cities and allow access for humanitarian aid.

They made no mention of arming the FSA but said they would “continue to work on additional appropriate measures with a view to the protection of the Syrian people”.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said her government was supplying “communications equipment that will help activists organise, evade attacks by the regime and connect to the outside world” and was “discussing with other nations how best to expand this support”.

The 16-month uprising, which has faced a brutal government crackdown, is increasingly being termed a civil war by foreign observers. Assad argues he is pursuing reforms even as he fights a revolt he says is led by foreign-backed militants.

But critics say Assad’s appointment of Riyad Hijab as prime minister earlier in June was a sign the president was turning to hardline loyalists. Hijab formed the new government given Assad’s approval, Syria TV said on Saturday.

Hijab, a former agriculture minister, is a committed member of Assad’s Baath Party, which has ruled Syria for nearly four decades since his father Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970.

Most of the top government posts were given to Baathist loyalists. Critics consider the cabinet to be largely symbolic and say power in Syria remains in the hands of Assad and his close inner circle of family and security force elites.

The new cabinet follows a May 7 parliamentary election which Assad said was part of the path to reform but the opposition boycotted as a sham, insisting the president must step down.

Other than Rajha, the ministers to retain their post were Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem.

Several new ministries were created in the new cabinet.

The moderate Qadri Jamil, a centrist who has said he is speaking both to the government and to rebels, was appointed minister of internal commerce and consumer protection. The post is newly formed and likely to be mostly ceremonial.


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