Assad replaces defecting prime minister
President Bashar al-Assad named a new prime minister today to replace Syria's most senior government defector as his forces pushed rebels back from a strategic district in Aleppo.
Dr 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.
Mr Hijab's dramatic escape across the border to Jordan dealt another blow to Dr Assad's authority, already shaken by the assassination last month of four of his top security officials and by rebel gains in Damascus, Aleppo and swathes of rural Syria.
But Dr 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.
Dr 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 frontline positions on Thursday by a fierce bombardment which had reduced buildings to rubble.
"There have been some withdrawals of Free Syrian Army fighters from Salaheddine," rebel commander Abu Ali said. Others said the main frontlines in the area, which had been held by rebels for more than a week, were now deserted.
The centre of the district, near Salaheddine mosque, was abandoned when journalists visited today. The only sound was the constant echo of artillery shelling. There were no rebels, no security forces, and only a few residents darting in and out to pick up belongings and leave.
The streets were covered in glass and rubble. Cars on the street had been smashed by falling debris, and the stench of uncollected rubbish permeated the area.
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, Iran, Dr Assad's closest foreign backer, gathered ministers from like-minded states for talks about how to end the conflict.
Foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi called for "serious and inclusive" talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups.
Dr Assad has repeatedly said he is ready for dialogue, but has vowed to crush the armed rebels he says are terrorists.
Dr Assad's opponents say he must step aside before they enter into talks, saying negotiations would be meaningless while the bloodshed persists.
Dr Assad cannot afford to lose Aleppo if he is to remain a credible national leader. Already stretched by rebel activity in many parts of the country, the military, despite its advantage in tanks, warplanes and helicopters, has had to cede ground elsewhere as it struggles for control of Syria's biggest city.
As part of a broader army offensive, Assad's forces attacked rebels on several fronts including a neighbourhood near the airport in southeast Aleppo, several eastern districts, and a town on Aleppo's northwestern outskirts, state media said.