Syria approves new constitution amid bloodshed

Israeli ex-negotiator with Damascus: Diplomatic efforts are now "futile"; Syria says 89% of voters approve referendum.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
February 27, 2012 18:17
4 minute read.
Syrian President Bashar Assad at polling station

Syrian President Bashar Assad at polling station 390 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/SANA)

 
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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.

While 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 voters.

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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 won’t accept.

“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 come.”



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 Oslo.

Arab countries should help lead a military force to provide a haven for anti-Assad forces inside Syria, he added.



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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 bombardment.

“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 streets.”

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 Cross.

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.

“It’s very tense, but things are starting to move, it seems,” he said.

Russia said its diplomats in Syria were trying to arrange a humanitarian truce in Homs, and suggested Western countries should pressure rebel forces there to cooperate.

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.”

The new 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 terms.

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.”

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