- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 6, 2012

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 based on last month’s parliamentary elections.

Mr. 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 one.

The opposition boycotted the vote, charging it was orchestrated by the regime to strengthen Mr. 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.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner dismissed the appointment as “another so-called reform by Assad.”

“We view it as another empty gesture by him to preserve his rule,” he said. “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 criticized Mr. 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.”

Mr. Assad “remains stubbornly deaf to the demands of his people,” Mr. Valero said.

Activists say as many as 13,000 people have died in Mr. Assad’s crackdown on 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 that time.

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 because of 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 nongovernmental 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 Mr. Assad’s government delivers on its promises.