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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 September 2018

Al Assad promotes top army commander in cabinet reshuffle 

General Ali Ayoub has been instrumental in the effort to put down Syria’s rebellion

The newly-named Syrian defense minister Ali Abdullah Ayyoub (L) being sworn in before president Bashar Al Assad (R) in Damascus. EPA / SANA handout
The newly-named Syrian defense minister Ali Abdullah Ayyoub (L) being sworn in before president Bashar Al Assad (R) in Damascus. EPA / SANA handout

Rebels fighting the Syrian government said Tuesday that the appointment of General Ali Ayyoub as new minister of defence was likely to have little effect on the course of Syria’s conflict

Syrian president Bashar Al Assad reshuffled his government on Monday, replacing the ministers of defence, information and industry, Syria's state news agency SANA reported.

“It is the first time in Syria’s history that the army commander, the chief of staff and the defence minister are all Alawites,” said Mohammed Zobani, the political representative of the Al Haq Division, a rebel group fighting in southern Syria.

The majority of Syria’s population is Sunni Muslim, as are most of the rebels seeking Mr Al Assad’s overthrow. But Alawites, the sect to which Mr Al Assad belongs, have long dominated the upper echelons of the military and government.

“The norm was to have an Alawite Chief of Staff and a Sunni defence minister,” said Adib Aliwi, a former Syrian military officer now living in Turkey who provides analysis of the conflict for Syrian news channel Orient TV.

“General Ayyoub doesn't have anything special about him except for the redundant fact that he obeys the orders of Bashar blindly and is ready to kill the people,” Mr Aliwi told The National.

Mr Ayyoub has been the Syrian army’s chief of staff since July 2012. He is replacing Fahd Jassem Al Freij, who had held the ministerial post since 2012.

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Mr Al Assad’s government is now widely seen as having “won” Syria’s seven-year civil war, largely as a result of the military support he has received from Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hizbollah militia.

But rebels still hold significant parts of the country and continue to inflict losses on the government. Mr Aliwi said the change was more likely linked to dissatisfaction with Mr Al Freij.

“He was used as the scapegoat for the defeat of the Syrian army in Harasta in the last few days. The regime needed to put the blame on someone for the failure and Freij was that one,” Mr Aliwi said, referring to an ongoing battle in the eastern suburbs of Damascus in which rebels this week had trapped a number of government soldiers.

Other former Syrian officers echoed Mr Aliwi’s assessment of Mr Ayyoub.

The appointment “does not have any significance since he is not a decision maker,” said Najm Al Majd, another rebel commander. “It is the Russians, the Iranians and their militias” making decisions.

“His appointment came at a delicate time for the Syrian crisis,” Mr Zobani told The National. “It indicates that Al Assad is concerned about those ministries ... he also wants to prove that he is the man in charge and is capable of reshuffling the government without hesitation.”

Mr Ayyoub is one of the Syrian officials that is sanctioned personally by the United Nations, the European Union and the UK for his role in fighting the rebellion against Mr Al Assad.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors Syria’s civil war, says that nearly half a million civilians and combatants have been killed since 2011.

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