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Assad shuffles Syrian leadership, but little change expected

June 6, 2012 |  9:41 am

Syria-prime-ministerBEIRUT -- Syrian President Bashar Assad, facing a raging insurrection that threatens his rule, on Wednesday named a longtime ruling party loyalist as the prime minister who will form a new “reform” government.

Assuming the post will be Riyad Farid Hijab, who has served as agriculture minister since April 2011 and once headed a regional branch of Assad’s Baath Party, state media reported.

Hijab previously served as governor of coastal Latakia province, where opposition activists have in recent days reported an intense government siege of rebel-controlled enclaves. The province is home to ancestral highland strongholds of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Alawites are a pillar of support for the government.

The new prime minister becomes a point man for Assad’s new agenda, which critics call window-dressing meant to give the impression of change while retaining Assad's power amid a 15-month rebellion.

The new appointment seems unlikely to signal any deviation in the government’s uncompromising stance with “terrorists,” as Syrian authorities label armed rebels seeking to end Assad’s rule.

Syrians last month elected a new parliament under terms of a revised constitution that, among other things, was meant to end the one-party monopoly of Assad’s Baath Party. Opposition groups boycotted both the constitutional and parliamentary votes, which were held as violence plagued many parts of the country.

Assad calls the reform plan a democratic response to people’s demand for change, and the changes have been lauded by Assad's allies, including Iran and Russia. The opposition labels the new parliament, like the old one, a rubber stamp for Assad’s autocratic rule.

In a nationally televised speech Sunday, Assad cited both his “reform” program and a need for “steadfastness” in the face of what he called a foreign conspiracy to destroy Syria.

“We confront a big part of the campaign against Syria with reforms and building a strong fortress in the face of regional and international ambitions,” Assad declared before the new parliament

Assad assumed power in 2000 after the 30-year rule of his late father, Hafez Assad, who crushed an Islamist-led rebellion that, like the current uprising, drew support from some segments of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority. The current president has likened that revolt a generation ago to the current raging insurgency seeking to topple his government.

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--Patrick J. McDonnell

Photo: Riyad Farid Hijab will assume the post as prime minister. Credit: Louai Beshara / Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

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