DAMASCUS/ISTANBUL/UNITED NATIONS, June 24 (Xinhua) -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ordered a cabinet shake-up Saturday, bringing in numerous fresh faces while retaining the most important three ministers.
The cabinet reshuffle will bring in 20 new ministers while keeping the ministers of interior, foreign affairs and defense.
According to a presidential decree broadcast by Syrian Television, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar and Defense Minister Dawood Rajaha will retain their posts.
On June 6, Assad ordered former Agriculture Minister Riahd Farid Hijab to form a new government for the conflict-stricken country, a move in accordance with a new constitution and after a parliamentary election held two months ago.
The new cabinet includes two figures from People's Will Party, a small opposition party, for the posts of the minister of national reconciliation and the minister of domestic trade. Major opposition parties boycotted the legislative elections, claiming they were designed to cement President al-Assad's grip on power.
Syria has been mired in violence since March 2011 when the government tried to stamp out anti-government protests.
Amid continued clashes between government forces and anti-government fighters, Damascus has launched several political reforms, including modifying the constitution and holding the parliamentary elections.
But the opposition, backed by major Western powers and gulf Arab states, have demanded President al-Assad step down to start a political transition.
The international community is increasingly worried that Syria, which sits on complex sectarian and ethnic fault lines, could degenerate into an an all-out civil war after a peace agreement, brokered by UN-Arab League joint envoy on Syria Kofi Annan, failed to stop bloodshed.
Many are also concerned that the spillovers of the Syrian crisis could destabilize the whole region.
The cabinet reshuffle comes a day after Syria shot down a Turkish fighter jet, which triggered tensions between the two countries.
On Friday, a Syrian military spokesman said a Turkish fighter jet, which was said to have penetrated Syrian air space earlier in the day, was shot down by the Syrian army.
Syria has no hostile intentions toward Turkey, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told Xinhua on Saturday, noting that "what happened was a defensive and sovereign act."
Syria joined in the search for the two missing pilots, Makdissi said, noting the country is dealing with the situation with responsibility.
According to a later news report by Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News, the two pilots were in good health after being rescued from the Mediterranean Sea.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul has vowed that his country will do whatever is required after the incident
Gul said that it was definite that the Turkish jet was shot down by Syria, noting that it was routine for warplanes flying at high speed to cross borders for short distances. Gul said it was not a move with hostile intentions.
The president said Turkish officials had called their Syrian counterparts over the incident, but he gave no details.
The incident drawn "deep concern" from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, according to a UN spokesman.
Ban on Saturday expressed "his deep concern about the downed Turkish military jet and particularly about the potential serious implications of this incident for the region," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
The UN leader also voiced hope that "this serious incident can be handled with restraint by both sides through diplomatic channels."
Iran, Syria's closest ally, also urged the two countries to show "calm and restraint" over the incident, Iranian media reported on Sunday.
Syria and Turkey, two former regional allies, have seen their relations plummet since the Syrian unrest broke out last year. The Turkish government, joining major Western powers, has called President al-Assad to step down due to his alleged crackdown on the popular protests.
Turkey has opened its borders to harbor Syrian refugees who fled the violence in their home country. Moreover, Syria's northern neighbor also allegedly harbored many political and armed factions of the Syrian opposition movement.