Syrian artillery pounded rebel-held areas of Homs on Monday as President Bashar
Assad’s government announced that voters had overwhelmingly approved a new
constitution in a referendum derided as a sham by his critics.
foreign powers argued over whether to arm the rebels, the Syrian Interior
Ministry said the reformed constitution, which could keep Assad in power until
2028, had received 89.4 percent approval from more than eight million
At least 59 people were killed on Monday in violence around the
country, activists said.
Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, now the
new UNArab League envoy on Syria, held talks in Geneva on Monday with French
Foreign Minister Alain Juppé and Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi on the
sidelines of a UN Human Rights Council meeting.
But Dr. Josef Olmert, a
Middle East expert at the University of South Carolina, said diplomatic efforts
have all but run their course.
“It’s futile – Kofi Annan can’t achieve
anything,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “The scores to be settled are such that
any diplomatic solution can’t achieve anything, because it would still be based
on Assad staying in power, which the opposition and the Sunni masses simply
“This is a crisis that has longevity beyond what was
considered possible in the beginning,” said Olmert, a former Israeli government
adviser and a delegate to the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference and subsequent talks
with Syria. “The regime’s entire strategy at first was to quell the rebellion as
quickly and powerfully as possible in order to restore the balance of power. But
we’re one year into the uprising, and this could go on for months to
Assad says the new constitution will lead to multi-party elections
within three months, but Syrian dissidents and Western leaders dismissed
Sunday’s vote as a farce.
Officials put national voter turnout at close
to 60%, but diplomats who toured polling stations in Damascus saw only a handful
of voters at each location.
The outside world has proved powerless to
halt the killing in Syria. Qatar joined Saudi Arabia in advocating arming Syrian
rebels, given that Russia and China have twice used their vetoes to block any
action by the United Nations Security Council.
“I think we should do
whatever is necessary to help them, including giving them weapons to defend
themselves,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said in
Arab countries should help lead a military force to provide a haven
for anti-Assad forces inside Syria, he added.
Assad says he is fighting
foreign- backed “armed terrorist groups” and his main allies – Russia, China and
Iran – fiercely oppose any intervention intended to add him to the list of Arab
autocrats unseated by popular revolts in the past year.
China called US
policy in the region “super-arrogant” and Russia’s Vladimir Putin warned against
any action that bypassed the UN Security Council.
Shells and rockets
crashed into Sunni districts of Homs that have already endured weeks of
“Intense shelling started on Khalidiya, Ashira, Bayada, Baba
Amro and the Old City at dawn,” opposition activist Mohammed al-Homsi said. “The
army is firing from the main thoroughfares deep into alleyways and side
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said nine people had
been killed by the attacks on Baba Amro.
Opposition accounts of grim
conditions in Homs were echoed by those from other observers, including the Red
Crowds gathered in the sensitive Damascus district of Kfar Souseh,
home to several security agency headquarters, to mourn three young men killed in
a protest on Sunday, a witness said.
The International Committee of the
Red Cross, which says the plight of civilians in Homs is worsening by the hour,
has failed to secure a pause in the fighting to allow the wounded to be
evacuated and desperately needed aid to be delivered.
The relief agency
has been pursuing talks with the Syrian authorities and opposition forces for
days to secure access to besieged neighborhoods such as Baba Amro, where local
activists say hundreds of wounded need treatment and thousands of civilians are
short of water, food and medical supplies.
Four Western journalists are
trapped in Baba Amro, two of them wounded. An American reporter and a French
photographer were killed there on February 22.
French President Nicolas
Sarkozy said he hoped the journalists could be rescued soon.
tense, but things are starting to move, it seems,” he said.
its diplomats in Syria were trying to arrange a humanitarian truce in Homs, and
suggested Western countries should pressure rebel forces there to
International consternation has grown over the turmoil in
Syria, but there is little appetite in the West for military action akin to the
UN-backed NATO campaign in Libya.
Sarkozy, however, said Western powers
hoped diplomacy could change minds: “We are putting pressure on the Russians
first and the Chinese afterwards so that they lift their veto.”
constitution drops a clause making Assad’s Ba’ath party the leader of state and
society, allows political pluralism and limits a president to two seven-year
But this restriction is not retrospective, implying that Assad, 46
and already in power since 2000, could serve two further terms after his current
one expires in 2014.
The opposition dismisses the reforms on offer,
saying that Assad, and his father who ruled for 30 years before him, have long
paid only lip service to existing legal obligations.
Juppé dismissed the
referendum as a “sinister masquerade.”