DAMASCUS, Syria: President Bashar Assad has reshuffled his Cabinet, appointing new ministers to handle an economy ravaged by two years of uprising and civil war, Syria’s state media reported Saturday.
State TV said the ministries that were changed are those of oil, finance, social affairs, labor, housing, public works, and agriculture. Key security ministries such as defense and interior remained unchanged.
Saturday’s announcement comes amid major shortages. Power outages are common and Syrians in some areas must stand in hours-long lines for bread and gasoline.
The civil war, which has killed more than 60,000 people, has also heavily damaged infrastructure like oil pipelines, bridges and water and power stations. The airport in Syria’s largest city and commercial hub, Aleppo, is closed due to fighting. The U.S. dollar today exchanges for around 95 Syrian pounds at the black market, about half its value of 47 pounds to the dollar when the crisis began in March 2011.
The presidential decrees issued Saturday said that what used to be the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs has been split into two posts, apparently to give the new Ministry of Social Affairs responsibility for rising numbers of people who have fled from one part of the country to another to escape the fighting.
Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said Tuesday that 2 million people have been displaced inside Syria while 4 million need urgent help. Those numbers could rise if fighting continues, he said.
He said the humanitarian situation in Syria had reached “catastrophic” proportions, with some 2.5 million people lacking food.
Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi meanwhile said Damascus is ready for dialogue with the opposition without pre-conditions.
Al-Zoubi said that the government is ready to invite everyone to engage in dialogue, so long as they lay down their weapons. He says anyone who responds will not be harmed.
It is the latest of a series of tentative peace feelers made by some spokesmen on both sides. But the rebel movement is highly decentralized and deeply distrusts the regime. Most groups are unlikely to stop fighting so long as Assad remains president.
“We believe in a Syrian national conference in Syria without preconditions and without sidelining anyone,” al-Zoubi said in an interview aired on state TV late Friday.
Assad in a rare speech in January outlined his own vision for ending the country’s conflict with a plan that would keep him in power. He also dismissed any chance of dialogue with the armed opposition and called on Syrians to fight what he called “murderous criminals.”
He offered a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution but demanded regional and Western countries stop funding and arming rebels trying to overthrow his regime first.
Syria’s opposition rejected the proposal. Those fighting to topple the regime, including rebels on the ground, have repeatedly said they will accept nothing less than the president’s departure, dismissing any kind of settlement that leaves him in the picture.
On Jan. 30, in a sharp departure from their resolve, the Syrian National Coalition’s president, Mouaz al-Khatib, said he is willing to talk to the regime if that would help end bloodshed. His call was sharply criticized by members of the opposition.
Al-Khatib suggested that Assad should begin releasing tens of thousands of political prisoners as a first step before Sunday or the offer will be void.