Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has set a date for a referendum on a new constitution later this month in a political gesture called into question by his troops’ relentless armoured assault on opponents in several cities.
The vote scheduled for 26 February would be on a new draft constitution allowing some political pluralism and limiting presidential terms. But while constitutional change was a central goal of the uprising when it started last March, that has since been overtaken by demands for Mr Assad’s departure.
There were also doubts about how a genuine referendum could be organised across the country amid violence which has already caused more than 5,400 deaths according to UN estimates. It continued unabated today as the regime’s military continued to attack its opponents, including armed military defectors.
In Homs, where the dissident neighbourhood of Baba Amr has been repeatedly shelled for the past 13 days, and where an oil pipeline was attacked yesterday, residents spoke of increasingly dire humanitarian conditions in which they were desperately foraging for food during intermittent lulls in the bombardments.
To its north in Hama, scene of the notorious massacre in which 10,000 were killed by government troops almost exactly 30 years ago, activists said that regime forces had sprayed residential districts with sustained machine gun fire. The umbrella group Local Co-ordinating Committees put today’s death toll across the country at 13, while the Britain-based Syrian Human Rights Observatory put it at five.
Reuters reported that regime forces, backed by armoured personnel carriers had searched houses in the Barzeh neighborhood of the capital, Damascus, apparently looking for Army defectors and making arrests.
The Syrian state news agency Sana has reported that the new constitutional draft would turn the country “into an example to follow in terms of public freedoms and political plurality in a way to lay the foundation for a new stage that will enrich Syria’s cultural history.”
It would modify the constitutional centrality of the ruling Baath party by permitting the creation of other parties, though not ones based on religion or region, apparently ruling out a legal role for the Muslim Brotherhood or parties explicitly representing Kurds in the north west of the country.
It would also set time limits on presidential terms to two terms of seven years. Mr Assad’s father Hafez was in office for 29 years until his death since when his son has ruled for 11 years.
Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia, which has consistently opposed continuing international calls for Mr Assad to go, said that by promoting the end of “one party rule” the new draft was a “step forward” which was “better late than never”. But Khalef Dahowd, of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, which represents several opposition groups, said: "The people in the street today have demands, and one of these demands is the departure of this regime".
The declaration for a referendum comes 24 hours before a scheduled vote before the UN General Assembly. While not binding, the vote is likely to see a majority backing the resolution calling on President Assad to stop the killing in the likes of Homs and other restive cities.
As thick black smoke from the ruptured pipeline was shown on an amateur video rising above what appeared to be a residential district of Homs, activists accused regime forces of responsibility while Sana blamed an “armed terrorist group” for hitting it.
A 19 year old female student who arrived this week in Beirut from Homs told the New York Times in the Lebanese capital that civilians had been allowed by troops to leave the Inshaat neighbourhood and some had bribed soldiers to bring them out in tanks or clear roads so residents could drive out.
Otherwise, the city was one where “all roads were closed, and even if they weren’t, the shelling makes it impossible for you to go anywhere.” Government services had collapsed and that high stinking piles of rubbish were either rotting or burning, set alight by rebel fighters as camouflage against regime snipers.
The student who declined to be named because her parents are still in the besieged city said residents feared the two main hospitals, where doctors tended to be pro-government, some even carrying guns. But she also described sporadic unofficial ceasefires where young Syrian soldiers at checkpoints were given food and some security in return for allowing residents to run errands or escape. She said people were rationing kerosene and hot water, while rushing out on quieter days to stock up on basic foods and torches. “They are anticipating a long siege,” she said.