Bashar Al-Assad
Bashar Al-Assad Reuters

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on Monday replaced his defense minister for the first time since 2012, AFP reported.

The move was part of a government reshuffle announced in the state news agency SANA.

"President Assad issued a decree, the first of 2018, naming General Ali Abdullah Ayoub minister of defense," the agency said, without providing any explanation for the surprise announcement.

The 65-year-old was until now the chief of general staff of the armed forces and replaces Fahd Jassem al-Freij.

Freij took over in July 2012 after his predecessor Daoud Rajha was killed in the bombing of a command center in Damascus. His deputy Assef Shawkat, who was Assad's brother-in-law, was killed in that attack as well, along with several other senior members of Assad’s cabinet.

Ayoub was born in Latakia, a coastal city in the heartland of the Alawite community to which Assad belongs, noted AFP.

The reshuffle also saw two other changes: Mohammed Mazen Ali Yusef was given the industry portfolio and Imad Abdullah Sara, previously the head of the state broadcasting corporation, was named information minister.

In recent weeks, Syrian forces have been closing in on rebels in a pocket of land near where the Syrian, Lebanese and Israeli borders meet.

Last week, rebel officials said the rebels were negotiating a deal with the government to leave for other insurgent-held areas.

Along with the Syrian army, the forces closing in on the rebels are Shiite militias supported by Iran and local fighters from the Druze sect.

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