Assad replaces defense minister with chief of staff

Syrian president appoints general Daoud Rajha to replace Ali Habib; top Sunni cleric adds voice to Arab criticism of Damascus.

Assad with defense minister and chief of staff 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Sana)
Assad with defense minister and chief of staff 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Sana)
Syrian President Bashar Assad replaced his defence minister on Monday, state television said. Assad appointed his chief of staff, general Daoud Rajha, to replace Ali Habib as defence minster, the television said.
The European Union imposed sanctions on Habib this month as part of measures against Syria's ruling hierarchy for their bloody crackdown on five months of pro-democracy demonstrations.
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The position of defense minister is a mostly ceremonial post in Syria, with most officers from the minority Alawite sect, the same sect as Assad, dominating the majority Sunni rank-and-file army.
The military is effectively under the command of Assad's feared brother Maher. Assad's brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, is also deputy chief or staff and diplomats say he plays a key role in the control over the army.
While internal changes were being made, Arab leaders continued to condemn the use of violence against anti-Assad protesters. The head of the most influential school of Sunni Islam added his voice on Monday to international and Arab criticism of Assad's assault on protesters, describing the bloodshed as a human tragedy that must stop.
A statement from Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of Cairo-based al-Azhar, a university and clerical body that has been a central seat of Sunni scholarship since the Middle Ages, said the body owed it to the Syrian people to "clearly announce matters have gone beyond the limit".
"This is a human tragedy that cannot be accepted," Tayeb said in the statement carried by Egypt's state news agency MENA. "Blood was shed, families were split up ... and unarmed people are being fought with live ammunition, iron and fire."
"Blood only fuels the fires of revolutions," Tayeb said, calling on Syrian authorities to immediately stop the bloodshed and respond to the "legitimate demands of the people".
Assad extended a tank onslaught in Syria's Sunni Muslim tribal heartland on Monday, residents said, in a crackdown on dissent that prompted an extraordinary warning from Saudi Arabia that he should stop the violence or risk defeat.
King Abdullah broke Arab silence after the bloodiest week of the almost five-month uprising for more political freedoms in Syria, demanding an end to the bloodshed and recalling the Saudi ambassador from Damascus.
Hours later Kuwait and Bahrain recalled their envoys too.
The steps by Gulf Arab states who watched the unrest mutely but nervously for months deepened Assad's international isolation. Western nations have imposed sanctions on his top officials while countries with close ties to Damascus such as Russia and Turkey have warned Assad he is running out of time.
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