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Wednesday, August 10, 2011     GET REAL

Syria's Assad ousts defense minister, cedes power to his brother

LONDON — President Bashar Assad fired his defense minister in an effort to accelerate military operations against the rebellion in Syria.


Western diplomatic sources said Assad dismissed Defense Minister Ali Habib Mahmoud after the latter repeatedly delayed major military operations against rebel strongholds in Syria, including the current assault on Hama.

The sources said Habib, appointed in 2009, had argued that large military operations against pro-democracy civilians — led by Assad's brother, Maher — were ineffective and encouraging Sunni soldiers to defect.

"Gen. Habib was a staunch opponent of the military campaign in Hama," a Western diplomat told the Saudi-owned daily A-Sharq Al Awsat.

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"With Habib out of the way, the entire military has come under the authority of Maher and his brother-in-law, Assaf Chawkat," another Western diplomat said.

On Aug. 8, Habib was replaced by Gen. Daoud Rajiha, the military's chief of staff and a Greek Orthodox Christian. The official Syrian news agency, Sana, asserted that Habib was replaced because of illness, Middle East Newsline reported.

"This reshuffle is part of the reassignments that have recently covered a number of officials following direct meetings held by President Assad with popular delegations and citizens," a Syrian government statement said.

A day later, Habib was said to have been killed at his home in what the opposition asserted was a regime execution. At first, Syrian state television said Habib died from natural causes, but did not elaborate.

Later, Habib appeared on state television and said reports of his death stemmed from Western countries. The ex-defense minister expressed praise of what he termed Syria's "courageous Defense Ministry."

The diplomats reported that Habib had been concerned by the use of the military to quell civilian protests. The outgoing defense minister was said to have argued that army and other military units were being demoralized and a target for Sunni Islamist insurgents trained in Iraq.

A-Sharq Al Awsat quoted a military source as saying Habib had ordered an army withdrawal from Hama, in which at least 300 civilians were killed in early August. The newspaper said Habib and other senior members of the Assad regime engaged in "differences on the management of the crisis."

The diplomats said Habib had long been regarded as one of the few pro-Western figures in the Syrian regime. In June, Habib, however, was cited in the second round of European Union sanctions when the military expanded operations to quell the revolt.

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