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Assad replaces fugitive PM, deals blow to rebels in key Aleppo district

Everyday more wounded Syrian rebels are brought in to Turkey and treated in border hospitals run by Syrian doctors and volunteers.  Medical supplies are in short supply and the hospitals underequipped.  NBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin reports. 

Updated at 3:45 p.m. ET: ALEPPO, Syria -- President Bashar Assad named a new prime minister Thursday to replace Syria's most senior government defector as his forces appeared to deal setbacks to the rebels in a strategic district of Aleppo.

Assad appointed Health Minister Wael Nader al-Halqi, a Sunni Muslim member of the ruling Baath Party from the southern province of Daraa, to head the government after Riyad Hijab fled Monday after spending only two months in the job. Daraa is where the 17-month-old uprising against the Assad family's rule began.

Hijab's dramatic escape across the border to Jordan dealt another blow to Assad's authority, already shaken by the assassination last month of four of his top security officials and rebel gains in Damascus, Aleppo and swathes of rural Syria.

Syrian troops on Wednesday pushed even farther into the key city of Aleppo where rebels are running short on much-needed supplies. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

But Assad, shrugging off such setbacks, seems locked in a desperate contest with his mostly Sunni opponents seeking to end half a century of Baathist rule and topple a system now dominated by members of the president's minority Alawite sect.

'Situation is desperate' at makeshift hospitals on Syrian-Turkish border

Assad has focused his fierce army counter-offensive on Syria's two main cities, reasserting control over much of Damascus before taking the fight to the northern commercial hub of Aleppo.

Key Aleppo district pounded
But blistering attacks on rebel positions from the ground and the air only appear to be slowly chipping away at the opposition's grip on its strongholds.

Rebels fighting in the Aleppo district of Salaheddine, a southern gateway to the city, said they had been forced to fall back from some frontline positions on Thursday by withering bombardment, which had reduced buildings to rubble.

PhotoBlog: Syrian fighter jet strafes farming village

"There have been some withdrawals of Free Syrian Army fighters from Salaheddine," rebel commander Abu Ali told Reuters, adding that rebels were regrouping for a counter-attack.

Rebels say minority Shiite and Alawite Muslims, the groups that have ruled Syria for decades, are being left alone in the carnage inflicted by Syrian troops. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

Another combatant said at least 30 people had been killed in Salaheddine, where fighting has ebbed and flowed for two days.

The state news agency also claimed that government forces had regained the area, but the situation on the ground remained fluid.

"It's difficult to know exactly what's going on because of the scale of the bombing, but the rebels are still fighting," Aleppo-based activist Mohammad Saeed told The Associated Press by Skype.

Fierce fighting rages in northern Syrian city of Aleppo

Syrian fighter jets launched airstrikes Wednesday on Tel Rifat, some 25 miles north of Aleppo, hitting a home and a high school and killing six people from one family, residents said.

Stringer / Reuters

After months of protests and violent crackdowns, a look back at the violence that has overtaken the country.

Aleppo, the country's commercial hub, holds great symbolic and strategic importance. Some 25 miles from the Turkish border, it has been a pillar of regime support during the uprising. An opposition victory there would allow easier access for weapons and fighters from Turkey, where many rebels are based.

Satellite images show Syria's bombardment of Aleppo, Amnesty says

Already stretched by rebel activity in many parts of the country, the military, despite its advantage in tanks, warplanes and helicopters, has had to cede ground elsewhere as it struggles for control of Aleppo.

Despite the onslaught in Aleppo, the U.S. sees the Assad opposition continuing to gain strength, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Thursday.

“The army is increasingly overstretched,” Ventrell said. “We think that the economy is under increasing strain and we think the rebels are getting stronger.”

Iran hosts conference of 'friends'
Meanwhile, state television in Iran, Syria's closest ally in the Middle East, said Tehran was hosting a conference of "friends" of Syria in the hope of finding a peaceful solution to the crisis.

NBC News

People resisting the army of President Bashar Assad in northern Syria cope with loss and prepare for fighting.

Hossein Amir Abdollahian, deputy foreign minister in charge of Arabic and African countries, said representatives from 15 countries will attend, including ones from Russia and China, as well as Pakistan, Iraq, Algeria and Venezuela. Russia's foreign ministry said Moscow will attend the talks hosted by Iran, represented by its ambassador in the capital Tehran.

The meeting was called at short notice.

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Russia in the past has urged the West to allow Tehran to take part in international discussions on how to settle the Syrian crisis, arguing that the Islamic republic could play an important role. Moscow has been the main protector and ally of Assad's regime, shielding it from the U.N. sanctions over its brutal crackdown on an uprising that has evolved into a full-blown civil war.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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