May 18, 2013
Syria's Assad replaces PM, Aleppo battles rage
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appointed Health Minister Wael al-Halki as prime minister today, after the defection earlier this week of Prime Minister Riyad Hijab.
Meanwhile, Syrian forces continued to pound rebels today in a strategic district of Aleppo.
Assad appointed Wael al-Halki, a Sunni Muslim from the southern province of Deraa where the Syrian uprising erupted 17 months ago, to head the government after Riyad Hijab fled on Monday after spending only two months in the job.
Halki, born in 1964, is from the southern province of Deraa where the 17-month-old uprising against Assad erupted.
Hijab's dramatic escape across the border to Jordan dealt another blow to Assad's authority, already shaken by the assassination last month of four of his top security officials and rebel gains in Damascus, Aleppo and swathes of rural Syria.
But Assad, grimly shrugging off such setbacks, seems locked in a desperate contest with his mostly Sunni opponents seeking to end half a century of Baathist rule and topple a system now dominated by members of the president's minority Alawite sect.
Assad has focused his fierce army counter-offensive on Syria's two main cities, reasserting control over much of Damascus before taking the fight to the northern commercial hub.
Rebels fighting in the Aleppo district of Salaheddine, a southern gateway to the city, said they had been forced to fall back from some frontline positions on Thursday by withering bombardment which had reduced buildings to rubble.
"There have been some withdrawals of Free Syrian Army fighters from Salaheddine," rebel commander Abu Ali said, adding that rebels were regrouping for a counter-attack.
Another combatant said at least 30 people had been killed in Salaheddine, where fighting has ebbed and flowed for two days.
As the battle for Aleppo raged, Assad's closest foreign backer Iran gathered ministers from like-minded states for talks about how to end the conflict. Russia, another ally of Damascus, said its ambassador to Tehran would attend.