BEIRUT -- Syrian President Bashar Assad appointed a loyalist as prime minister Wednesday as he battles a 15-month uprising against his rule that has grown increasingly violent, the government said.
Riad Farid Hijab, a member of the ruling Baath Party and the former agriculture minister, will form a new government following last month's parliamentary elections.
Assad touted the May 7 vote as a milestone in promised political reforms. The elections were the first under a new constitution that allows political parties to compete with the Baath.
The opposition boycotted the vote, charging it was orchestrated by the regime to strengthen Assad's grip on power. Parliament is considered little more than a rubber stamp in Syria, where the president and a tight coterie of advisers hold the real power.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner dismissed the appointment as "another so-called reform by Assad." He said, "We view it as another empty gesture by him to preserve his rule. It's hard to take any of this seriously when Syrian citizens are being shelled daily, when you've got atrocities" like the massacre in Houla.
France slammed Hijab's appointment as a sham.
Speaking in an online briefing Wednesday, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said the elections were a "pretense" and that the appointment of a new premier "constitutes a new evasion, a masquerade."
Assad "remains stubbornly deaf to the demands of his people," Valero said.
Activists say as many as 13,000 people have died in Assad's crackdown against the anti-government uprising, which began in March 2011. One year after the revolt began, the U.N. put the toll at 9,000, but many hundreds more have died since.
On Tuesday, Syria agreed to allow humanitarian workers and supplies into four of its provinces hit hardest by violence - a promise of some relief in a nation where 1 million people need aid urgently due to the fighting.
At the same time, however, Damascus plunged itself into further international isolation by labeling U.S. and European envoys as unwelcome in retaliation for earlier Western expulsion of Syrian diplomats.
The humanitarian deal requires Syria to provide visas for an unspecified number of aid workers from nine U.N. agencies and seven other non-governmental organizations, and to cut through the red tape that has blocked convoys from delivering food, medicine and other supplies, said John Ging, operations director for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Officials were quick to caution they won't declare success until Assad's government delivers on its promises. Ging said he hopes it will be "days, not weeks" before the workers start filtering in and aid is delivered to Daraa, Deir el-Zour, Homs and Idlib provinces, and he urged Syria to keep its end of the bargain.
"Whether this is a breakthrough or not will be evident in the coming days and weeks and it will be measured not in rhetoric, not in agreements, but in action on the ground," Ging said after a closed-door session in Geneva to discuss the dire humanitarian situation in Syria.
Last week, Western nations expelled Syrian diplomats in a coordinated move after a May 25 massacre in which more than 100 people were slaughtered in Houla, a cluster of small villages in the central province of Homs. The U.N. says pro-regime gunmen were believed to be responsible for at least some of the killings, but Assad has insisted his forces had nothing to do it.
On Tuesday, Syria barred some U.S. and European diplomats, saying they were "no longer welcome." The countries targeted by the order had already pulled their ambassadors from Damascus, but the move showed how far diplomatic ties have disintegrated amid the uprising.
As the conflict grows more violence, there are fears of violence spilling across Syria's borders.
In Lebanon on Wednesday, security officials said Syrian troops clashed with gunmen on the Lebanese side of the border, near the eastern town of Arsal. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said four people were wounded on the Lebanese side, one seriously.
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
|@ AmbassadorRice : #Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.|
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say. Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
|@ AlexanderPageSY : Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria|
|@ Reuters : UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS|