By: Oliver Holmes
BEIRUT, Lebanon – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad named a Baath Party stalwart to form a new government on Wednesday, signaling no political concessions to a 15-month-old uprising, as the army battled rebel forces near the Mediterranean coast.
The appointment of Riyad Hijab, agriculture minister in the outgoing government, as prime minister follows a parliamentary election last month which authorities said was a step towards political reform but which opponents dismissed as a sham.
“We expected Assad to play a game and appoint a nominal independent but he chose a hardcore Baathist,” said opposition campaigner Najati Tayyara. The new government, like its predecessors, would wield no real power, he added.
“The cabinet is just for show in Syria and even more so now, with the security apparatus totally taking over.”
Activists said soldiers backed by helicopters and tanks fought rebels in the coastal province of Latakia for a second day on Wednesday, in the heaviest clashes there since the revolt against Assad erupted in March last year.
The relentless violence has shredded an eight-week-old ceasefire deal brokered by former United Nations chief Kofi Annan. Rebels, who say they are no longer bound by the accord, have killed more than 100 soldiers this week, according to one monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Russia called for a broad international meeting, including regional powers Turkey and Iran, the Arab League, European Union and permanent U.N. Security Council members, to rescue Annan’s plan, but the United States gave the idea short shrift.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has accused Iran of supporting pro-Assad militias, said it was “a little hard to imagine inviting a country that is stage-managing the Assad regime’s assault on its people”.
Clinton was due to discuss the crisis in Syria later on Wednesday with ministers from Turkey and European and Arab states gathered in Istanbul for counter terrorism talks.
The British-based Observatory said rebels seized control of police and intelligence buildings in the Latakia town of Selma overnight, before army reinforcements arrived at dawn.
The soldiers killed a rebel captain in Selma and six civilians in Haffeh, a mostly Sunni Muslim area where clashes have been most intense, it said.
Observatory director Rami Adbelrahman said that hospital staff in the cities of Latakia and Banias reported a constant stream of ambulances bringing soldiers to emergency rooms.
“We have 50 to 60 soldiers injured, some in critical condition,” he said by telephone. “There will be rebel casualties, too, but it is hard to know how many.” Rebels do not take their wounded to government hospitals for fear of arrest.
Local activists provided shaky footage of a Syrian helicopter firing rockets. A member of the rebel Free Syrian Army in Latakia said its lightly-armed fighters faced shellfire.
“There was heavy fighting all night. In the morning, Syrian forces started shelling Selma and Haffeh,” the FSA’s Ali al-Raidi told Reuters by telephone.
Syria heavily restricts access to international media organizations, which Damascus says have contributed to inciting violence, making it hard to verify reports from either side.
More than 35 people were reported killed on Tuesday and Assad’s forces also suffered heavy casualties with at least 26 soldiers killed, many in ambushes by insurgents.
The clashes were a rare surge of violence in Latakia province, home to several towns inhabited by members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, which has been generally hostile to the mostly Sunni-led uprising.
RUSSIA PROPOSES SYRIA MEETING
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for a broad international meeting on the crisis in Syria with the aim of reviving Annan’s peace plan, but made clear he believed Assad’s opponents were responsible for its failure so far.
Western powers also support Annan’s peace plan but say pressure must be stepped up against Assad after the massacre of 108 women, children and men in Houla nearly two weeks ago. They hold Assad’s forces responsible, a charge Damascus rejects.
“We believe it is necessary to assemble a meeting of states with real influence on different opposition groups. There are not that many,” Lavrov said in Beijing, where he accompanied President Vladimir Putin to a security summit.
“The goal of such a meeting – different to the Friends of Syria meetings which are devoted to supporting Syria’s National Council and its radical demands – would be for all external players to agree, honestly and without double standards, to fulfill Kofi Annan’s plan because we all supported it.”
The Friends of Syria, a loose grouping of mainly Western and Arab countries that want an end to Assad’s rule, have held several meetings since February to coordinate steps against him.
One of Assad’s most vocal Arab critics, Saudi Arabia, said on Tuesday that Gulf Arab States were losing confidence in Annan’s plan and called on the Security Council to put it under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, a measure that could authorize the use of force.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, addressing a Friends of Syria sanctions working group, echoed that call saying nations should take actions against Syrian authorities including, if necessary, under Chapter 7.
But Putin and his Chinese hosts, both veto-wielding council members, reiterated their opposition to any outside intervention on Wednesday, calling on both sides in Syria to stop violence and start talks without delay.