In the midst of international pressure over Syria's role in Lebanon, President Bashar Al Assad reshuffled the cabinet targeting major posts such as the foreign, interior, and information ministries and introducing 14 new ministers. Career diplomat Walid Al Muallem became foreign minister, replacing Farouq Al Sharaa who served as Syria's foreign minister for 22 years. Al Sharaa was appointed vice-president, a position that had been vacant since Abdel Halim Khaddam resigned in June 2005. Senior security officer Bassam Abdel Majid was appointed interior minister to succeed the late Ghazi Kanaan, whom authorities said committed suicide last year. Syria's ambassador to Spain Mohsen Bilal became the country's new information minister and Naji Al Otari retained his post as prime minister. The reshuffle broke with a tradition of including a member of each of the nine political parties that compose the National Progressive Front, an umbrella for legal political parties led by the Baath party; the Arab Socialist Unity Movement and the Socialist Unionist Party are no longer represented. Click here for a cabinet list.
The Syrian government released five prominent political prisoners on January 16 including Riad Seif, a former MP arrested in 2001 along with nine other activists in a governmental crackdown on political forums. Upon his release, Seif announced he will form a new political party, the National Liberal Party.