- Associated Press - Monday, August 8, 2011

BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad replaced his defense minister Monday with the army chief of staff in the midst of a brutal military crackdown on a 5-month-old uprising, the state-run news agency said.

Gen. Ali Habib, the country’s defense minister since 2009, was removed from his post because of health problems, the SANA report said, but some analysts said the general was unhappy with the crackdown.

He was replaced by Gen. Dawoud Rajha, a 64-year-old Christian, SANA said. The agency did not say who will succeed Rajha as chief of staff. His deputy is Maj. Gen. Assef Shawkat, who is married to Assad’s sister, Bushra.

The army has played a leading role in the bloody crackdown, shelling cities with heavy weapons and tanks.

On Monday, the military renewed its assault on Deir el-Zour, unleashing artillery fire on the eastern town, a day after at least 42 people were killed there. And in the southern city of Daraa, security forces killed at least three people at a funeral, activists said.

The bloodshed has drawn sharp condemnation from abroad, and Arab nations joined the growing international chorus against Assad’s regime Monday, with Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia recalling their ambassadors.

The international community already has imposed sanctions on the regime — including on Habib and Rajha — and demanded an immediate end to the attacks. France, Italy and Germany renewed their condemnation Monday.

But in a sign of growing outrage, Syria’s Arab neighbors joined the mounting criticism, voicing their concerns about a crackdown that intensified on the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — a time of introspection and piety characterized by a dawn-to-dusk fast.

Some analysts say that Habib, who belongs to Assad’s ruling minority Alawite sect, was removed not because he was ill, but because he was uneasy with the crackdown.

Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian scholar at George Washington University, said Habib lost his job because he was a professional officer with no links to the country’s dreaded security agencies.

Habib was not happy with the acts being carried out by the army,” said Ziadeh. “Habib is a professional and respected officer in the army and he is a member of the Alawite sect.”

Ziadeh said the shake-up indicates there are Alawite officers who are unhappy with the regime. Many senior security and military posts are held by Alawites, while most of the protesters belong to the country’s Sunni Muslim majority.

Late Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s king — whose country does not tolerate dissent and lent its military troops to repress anti-government protests in neighboring Bahrain — said he was recalling his ambassador to Damascus for consultations, and demanded “an end to the killing machine and bloodshed.”

“Any sane Arab, Muslim or anyone else knows that this has nothing to do with religion, or ethics or morals; spilling the blood of the innocent for any reasons or pretext leads to no path,” King Abdullah said in a statement.

Bahrain, a U.S. ally that hosts the Navy’s 5th Fleet, recalled its ambassador to Syria “for consultation,” Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa announced on his official Twitter feed Monday. Bahraini officials couldn’t immediately be reached for further comment.

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