Assad sets date for constitutional reform referendum

 

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. 

Sport
Premier League Live
footballLIVE Follow all the Premier League action as it happens
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + echSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
News
James Argent from Towie is missing, police say
peopleTV star had been reported missing
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, Linux, Shell, Bash)

£50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, L...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone