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.
It said he split the ministry of labour and social affairs into two, and brought in a woman, Kinda Shmat, to head the latter. Hassan Hijazi becomes labour minister.
Ismail Ismail becomes finance minister and Sleiman Abbas takes the oil and mineral resources portfolio. The housing and urban development, agriculture and public works ministers also changed.
Assad has announced several reshuffles since the uprising against his rule began, the most recent in August 2012.
Efforts towards finding a political solution to the conflict, which the UN says has killed more than 60,000 people, appeared to be deadlocked, hours after Damascus offered talks without preconditions.
The opposition has demanded Assad's departure be the focus of any talks.
Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi said on state television late 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.
The base is less than 25 kilometres (15 miles) from the border with Turkey, a key backer of the rebellion against Assad's regime.
Air raids also targeted northern and eastern areas outlying the capital, amid fighting between loyalist troops and insurgents, the watchdog said.
Jets also hit the town of Sabineh south of Damascus, and fierce clashes broke out between rebels and troops in the embattled town of Daraya, where the army shelled insurgent positions, the Observatory said.
The army this week launched a major offensive against rebel zones surrounding the capital, in a drive to break the stalemate.
Pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan said the army was "determined to crush terrorism around the capital and in big cities."
The Observatory said at least 15 people were killed on Saturday a day after it reported 136 deaths nationwide.
Lebanon's Maronite patriarch, meanwhile, was in Damascus for Sunday's enthronement of Syria's Greek Orthodox leader, in a show of support for the country's minority Christian community.
Patriarch Beshara Rai will attend the enthronement of Yuhanna X Yazigi in the first visit by a Maronite patriarch since Syrian independence in 1943, Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar reported.
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.