Assad replaces top Syrian brass after losing military base to US- and al-Qaeda-backed fighters
President Bashar al-Assad reshuffled his government on Monday by replacing the ministers of defence, information and industry, while heavy fighting erupted between the military and insurgents near the capital of Damascus.
State news agency SANA did not give a reason for the government reshuffle, which comes after two years of gaining ground with the help of Iran-backed fighters under the cover of Russian air strikes.
But it followed one day on from the loss of a military installation and its attached military unit to a strike by US-backed rebels and al-Qaeda-linked fighters.
SANA said army commander General Ali Ayoub had been named defence minister, replacing Fahd Jassem al-Freij who had held the post since 2012. Ayoub had previously been the army chief of staff since July 2012.
It also said that Imad Sarah has been named information minister, while Mohammed Mazen Youssef was chosen as the new minister of industry.
On Sunday, after three days of clashes, pro-government forces and their military base were captured near the Damascus suburb of Harasta.
Both The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syria-based activist Mazen al-Shami said Monday’s fighting was concentrated inside the military installation near Harasta, where and that a government force had been trapped by the US- and al-Qaeda-aligned forces.
The group said the Syrian air force conducted at least a dozen air strikes on Harasta and nearby suburbs. Al-Shami reported dozens of air strikes. He said the government brought in reinforcements overnight and is trying to reach the trapped force.
The group said the three days of violence in the suburbs of Damascus, which is known as eastern Ghouta, has killed 35 civilians, 24 soldiers and 29 insurgents.
An official with the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham insurgent group said the government is negotiating the passage of its fighters trapped in the military installation.
The official, who asked not to be named because of the secrecy of the talks, said the negotiations were in their preliminary stages.
Syria’s state media did not mention the trapped force but blamed insurgents for the violence, saying they are firing shells into government-controlled areas, killing at least one civilian.
The UN says government forces are holding nearly 400,000 people under siege in eastern Ghouta. The region was once a hotbed of protest against President Bashar al-Assad’s government.