Syria’s ruling party elects new command amid war

July 8, 2013

Syria’s ruling Baath Party elected a new command Monday to replace its aging leadership, including the country’s longtime vice president, as government forces closed in on a key rebel-held neighborhood in central Syria.

In a further blow to the rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad, Ghassan Hitto resigned from his post as the opposition’s prime minister, citing his inability to form an interim government.

Both developments came during a spike in violence in the central Syrian city of Homs, where government forces began an offensive 10 days ago to recapture opposition-held districts.

Syria’s state-run television said the new Baath command, which is the party’s top decision-making body, was chosen during a meeting of the party’s central committee. The Baath Party has ruled Syria since 1963.

A senior party official, Fayez Sayegh, said the reshuffle was meant to pump new blood into the party. He said longtime Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, a close associate of the Assad family, was among those replaced.

The central committee meeting had been scheduled to take place earlier but was postponed because of the violence engulfing the country.

On the rebel side, a former Syrian political prisoner with close links to Saudi Arabia, Ahmad al-Jarba, was elected Saturday to lead the opposition coalition.

Hitto was little known before he was appointed in March by the Western-backed Syrian Opposition Coalition to head an interim government to administer areas seized by the rebel forces.

In a statement issued Monday, he said he was stepping down “for the general good of the Syrian revolution.”

Hitto is mistrusted by other opposition members, who dislike his perceived proximity to the Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood. He had been effectively sidelined since his appointment — a result of the rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are vying for influence among the Sunni-dominated Syrian opposition. Both countries have been prominent supporters of anti-Assad forces.

The coalition is headquartered in Egypt. In another setback for the group, Egyptian authorities began imposing travel restrictions Monday on Syrians, requiring them to get visas before arriving in the country, officials there and Syrian opposition members said.

Syrian opposition figure Haitham Maleh said he was among those denied entry Monday.

Egyptian airport officials said the measures followed reports that a large number of Syrians in Egypt were backing the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and took part in violence after the ousting of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. The allegations could not be independently confirmed.

The airport officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists.

Violence in Syria continued Monday, as two car bombs exploded in a predominantly Alawite and Christian neighborhood of Homs, killing at least four people and wounding 29, a local official said.

The explosions in the Akrama neighborhood point to the Syrian conflict’s increasing slide into sectarian warfare. A car bomb had struck the same area a few weeks ago.

— Associated Press

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