Syrian president reshuffles economic Cabinet posts

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Photo -   In this Friday February 8, 2013, photo, a Free Syrian Army fighters patrols close to the front lines near a main highway in Aleppo, Syria. Syrian rebels brought their fight within a mile of the heart of Damascus on Friday, seizing army checkpoints and cutting a key highway with a row of burning tires as they pressed their campaign for the heavily guarded capital, considered the likely endgame in the nearly 2-year-old civil war. (AP Photo/Abdullah al-Yassin)
In this Friday February 8, 2013, photo, a Free Syrian Army fighters patrols close to the front lines near a main highway in Aleppo, Syria. Syrian rebels brought their fight within a mile of the heart of Damascus on Friday, seizing army checkpoints and cutting a key highway with a row of burning tires as they pressed their campaign for the heavily guarded capital, considered the likely endgame in the nearly 2-year-old civil war. (AP Photo/Abdullah al-Yassin)
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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad reshuffled his Cabinet on Saturday, appointing seven new ministers in a move that appeared aimed at trying to shore up an economy that has been ravaged by the country's 2-year-old revolt, state media said.

State TV said Assad replaced the heads of the oil, finance, social affairs, labor, housing, public works and agriculture ministries. Key security ministries such as defense and interior, which are on the front lines of the civil war, remained unchanged.

Syria's economy has been devastated by the civil war, which has left major cities in ruins and gutted the nation's industries. Power outages are common and Syrians in some areas must stand in hours-long lines for bread and gasoline.

The reshuffle took place as fighting in Damascus and its suburbs raged for a fourth consecutive day, with clashes focused in southern and northeastern neighborhoods of the capital.

Rebels brought their fight within a mile of the heart of Damascus on Friday, seizing army checkpoints and cutting a key highway with a row of burning tires as they pressed their campaign for the city, the seat of Assad's power.

Both the rebels and the government consider the fight for Damascus the most likely endgame in a civil war that has already killed more than 60,000. The regime controls movement in and out of the heavily defended city with a network of checkpoints, and rebels have failed so far to make significant inroads and hold them.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported intense air raids on several Damascus suburbs on Saturday, including Zamalka and Douma, and near a major highway that leads to the capital. It added that troops shelled the northeastern neighborhoods of Jobar and Qaboun that have witnessed fighting and shelling since Thursday.

A resident who lives near Jobar said he fled with his family Friday afternoon to a safer area close to central Damascus because of the intensity of the fighting.

"It was a bad day. We heard lots of explosions," he said speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees reported that rebels captured a housing compound for army officers in the Damascus suburb of Adra. To the north, the Observatory said rebels entered parts of the Mannagh air base near the border with Turkey that has been subjected to attacks by rebels for weeks.

The civil war has heavily damaged infrastructure like oil pipelines, bridges and water and power stations. The airport in Syria's largest city and commercial hub, Aleppo, is closed due to fighting. The exchange rate for one U.S. dollar today is around 95 Syrian pounds on the black market, which is more than double the 47 pounds to the dollar when the crisis began in March 2011.

The presidential decrees issued Saturday appeared to be an attempt to address some of the fallout — economic and social — from the civil war.

The order split what used to be the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs into two posts, apparently to give the new Ministry of Social Affairs responsibility for rising number of people who have fled from one part of the country to another to escape the fighting.

Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said Tuesday that 2 million people have been displaced inside Syria while 4 million need urgent help. Those numbers could rise if fighting continues, he said. He said the humanitarian situation in Syria had reached "catastrophic" proportions, with some 2.5 million people lacking food.

Syria's civil war has settled into a bloody stalemate that shows no signs of stopping, despite several tentative proposals from both sides to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Syria's Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi floated the latest proposal late Friday, saying Damascus is ready for dialogue with the opposition, so long as they lay down their weapons. He said anyone who responds will not be harmed.

The offer is unlikely to gain much traction among the Syrian opposition. The rebel movement is highly decentralized and deeply distrusts the regime, and most groups are unlikely to stop fighting so long as Assad remains president.

Assad in a rare speech in January outlined his own vision for ending the country's conflict with a plan that would keep him in power. He also dismissed any chance of dialogue with the armed opposition and called on Syrians to fight what he called "murderous criminals."

He offered a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution but demanded regional and Western countries stop funding and arming rebels trying to overthrow his regime first.

Syria's opposition rejected the proposal. Those fighting to topple the regime have repeatedly said they will accept nothing less than the president's departure.

On Jan. 30, in a sharp shift from their resolve, the Syrian National Coalition's president, Mouaz al-Khatib, said he is willing to talk to the regime if that would help end bloodshed. His call was sharply criticized by members of the opposition.

Al-Khatib suggested that Assad should begin releasing tens of thousands of political prisoners as a first step before Sunday or the offer will be void.

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Mroue reported from Beirut.

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