BEIRUT (AP) — President Bashar Assad reshuffled his government Monday, replacing the ministers of defense, information and industry, Syria’s state news agency SANA reported.
SANA did not give a reason for the government reshuffle that comes at a time when Assad’s forces have been gaining ground over the past two years under the cover of Russian airstrikes and with the help of Iran-backed fighters.
It said army commander Gen. Ali Ayoub has been named defense minister, replacing Fahd Jassem al-Freij who had held the post since 2012. Ayoub had been the army chief of staff since July 2012 until he became defense minister.
The agency added that Imad Sarah has been named information minister while Mohammed Mazen Youssef was chosen as the new minister of industry.
The announcement came as different parts of Syria witnessed violence, mostly in the suburbs of the capital Damascus and northwestern Syria, where troops are on the offensive on the southern edge of Idlib province.
Heavy clashes broke out between Syrian government forces and insurgents east of Damascus when troops tried to reach under the cover of a dozen airstrikes a force trapped inside, opposition activists said.
The clashes have been ongoing for three days, but on Sunday, rebels backed by al-Qaeda-linked fighters attacked troops and pro-government gunmen capturing parts of a military installation and surrounding a force inside.
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 the suburb of Harasta, where the government force has been trapped.
The Observatory said the Syrian air force conducted at least a dozen airstrikes on Harasta and nearby suburbs. Al-Shami reported dozens of airstrikes. He said the government brought in reinforcements overnight and is trying to reach the trapped force.
The Observatory said three days of violence in the suburbs of Damascus known as eastern Ghouta has killed 35 civilians, as well as 24 government troops 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 are in their preliminary stages.
Syria’s state media did not mention the trapped force, but blamed insurgents for the violence, saying that 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 Assad’s government.