Assad reshuffles cabinet, warplanes raid Damascus

President Bashar al-Assad reshuffled his cabinet Saturday as regime warplanes raided rebel areas in a bid to end the stalemate in Syria's deadly civil war and hopes for a political solution appeared to founder.

Syria is in the depths of an unprecedented economic recession because of the violence gripping the country for nearly two years, and the latest government reshuffle focused on finance and social affairs portfolios.

The World Bank says the country's gross domestic product has shrunk by 20 percent, and the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) puts unemployment at 37 percent and possibly hitting 50 percent by the end of 2013.

Assad changed seven ministers, the official SANA news agency reported.

He split the labour and social affairs ministry into two, bringing in a woman, Kinda Shmat, to head the latter. Hassan Hijazi becomes labour minister.

Ismail Ismail is given the finance portfolio and Sleiman Abbas takes the oil and mineral resources job. The housing and urban development, agriculture and public works ministers also changed.

Assad has reshuffled the government several times since the uprising against his rule began in March 2011, the most recent in August 2012 following the defection of former premier Riad Hijab.

Efforts to find a political solution to the conflict, which the UN says has killed more than 60,000 people, appeared deadlocked on Saturday, hours after Damascus offered talks without preconditions.

The opposition has demanded the talks focus on Assad's departure.

Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi said on Friday that the regime was prepared to have talks with its political foes so long as they set no preconditions.

"The door is open, the negotiating table is there, welcome to any Syrian who wants to have dialogue with us," he said.

"When you speak of dialogue, it means dialogue without conditions, which excludes no one... There must be no preconditions."

The opposition Syrian National Coalition said on February 1, the day after an offer of dialogue by its leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, that any talks on the country's political future must be about the departure of the Assad regime.

New US Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday in his first news conference since taking up the post that Washington was weighing its next steps on Syria.

"We are evaluating now, we are taking a look at what steps, if any, diplomatic particularly, might be able to be taken in an effort to reduce that violence and deal with that situation," Kerry said.

In the latest fighting, regime warplanes launched air strikes within the Menegh military airbase in the northern province of Aleppo after rebels stormed parts of the garrison, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Clashes in Aleppo city killed at least six soldiers and a Kurdish militant, the Observatory said, while pro-regime gunmen attacked Kurdish militia checkpoints in another area of the northern metropolis.

Syria's Kurds, the largest ethnic minority, are divided over the revolt against Assad's regime and have engaged in clashes with both Islamist rebels and regime forces.

Air raids also targeted northern and eastern areas outlying Damascus and jets hit the town of Sabineh south of the capital as rebels and troops clashed in the nearby town of Daraya, the watchdog said.

The British-based Observatory, which compiles its information from activists on the ground and medics, said at least 90 people were killed in violence nationwide on Saturday.

Lebanon's Maronite patriarch Beshara Rai of Lebanon, meanwhile, arrived in Damascus for Sunday's enthronement of Syria's Greek Orthodox leader Yuhanna X Yazigi, in a show of support for the country's minority Christian community.

"We are here in solidarity with all the people who are suffering in Syria," Rai told AFP at Saint Anthony's Cathedral in the Christian district of Bab Tuma.

And he also called for change in a sermon, saying "reforms are necessary, but should not be imposed from the outside."

Syria's Christian minority makes up about five percent of the war-torn country's population. Many Christians have remained neutral in the conflict while others have taken Assad's side, fearing a rise of Islamism.

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