Syria opposition: Assad's referendum plan 'a joke'

31 killed as Homs bombardment continues; Turkish analyst: Corridor could help fleeing civilians, regime unlikely to consent.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
February 26, 2012 20:39
Syrian President Bashar Assad at polling station

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

 
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At least 31 Syrian civilians and soldiers were killed on Sunday in fighting over the country’s future that coincided with a vote on a new constitution that could keep President Bashar Assad in power until 2028.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a military bombardment of opposition districts in Homs, now in its fourth week, had killed nine civilians, while rebel fighters had killed four soldiers in clashes in the city.

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The group said eight civilians and 10 members of the security forces were killed in violence elsewhere in Syria, in what has become an increasingly militarized revolt against four decades of Assad family rule.

Ilhan Tanir, a Turkish journalist based in Washington, said setting up a humanitarian corridor to help fleeing civilians is the most feasible option for intervention in Syria. Western governments, however, have conditioned creating any such corridor on the assent of the Syrian regime, an option Tanir said was all but impossible.

“I haven’t seen any signs that the Syrian regime would say yes,” Tanir, who snuck into Syria last month, told The Jerusalem Post.

“Right now the regime won’t even agree to a cease-fire for civilians in Homs to leave. I just don’t see how the regime might give in.”

Voting was under way in the referendum on a new constitution, which Assad says will lead to a multi-party parliamentary election in three months, though his opponents see it as a sick joke, given Syria’s turmoil.

“What should we be voting for, whether to die by bombardment or by bullets? This is the only choice we have,” said Waleed Fares, an activist in the Khalidiyah district of Homs.

The Interior Ministry acknowledged obliquely that security conditions had disrupted voting, saying, “The referendum on a new constitution is taking place in a normal way in most provinces so far, with a large turnout, except in some areas.”

Prime Minister Adel Safar, asked about opposition calls for a boycott, said that this showed a lack of interest in dialogue.

“There are some groups that have a Western and foreign agenda and do not want reforms in Syria and want to divert Syria’s steadfastness,” he told reporters.

“We are not concerned with this. We care about... spreading democracy and freedom in the country,” he said.

“If there was a genuine desire for reform, there would have been movement from all groups, especially the opposition, to start dialogue immediately with the government to achieve the reforms and implement them on the ground.”

The outside world has been powerless to restrain Assad’s drive to crush the 11-month-old revolt.

Unwilling to intervene militarily and unable to get the UN Security Council to act, due to Russian and Chinese opposition, Western powers have imposed their own sanctions on Syria and backed an Arab League call for Assad to step down.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned on Sunday of the perils of any foreign intervention.

“I think there is every possibility of a civil war. Outside intervention would not prevent that – it would probably expedite it,” she told BBC television.

“We have a very dangerous set of actors in the region: al-Qaida, Hamas and those who are on our terrorist list claiming to support the opposition. You have many Syrians more worried about what could come next,” she said.

“If you bring in automatic weapons, which you can maybe smuggle across the border, what do they do against tanks and heavy artillery? There is such a much more complex set of factors.”

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the referendum was “nothing but a farce.”

“Sham votes cannot contribute to a solution of the crisis. Assad needs to put an end to the violence and clear the way for a political transition,” he said.

The military onslaught on parts of Homs has created harrowing conditions for civilians, rebels and journalists.

A video posted by activists on YouTube showed Muhammad al-Muhammad, a doctor at a makeshift clinic in Baba Amro, holding a 15-yearold boy hit in the neck by shrapnel and spitting blood.

“It is late at night and Baba Amro is still being bombarded. We can do nothing for this boy,” said the doctor, who has also been treating Western journalists wounded in the city.

American correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed in the bombardment of Homs last week and two other Western journalists were wounded. The group is still trapped there, despite Red Cross efforts to extricate them.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Saturday that it was still unable to evacuate civilians from Baba Amro. After a day of talks with Syrian authorities and opposition fighters, it said there were “no concrete results.”

In Hama, another city with a bloody record of resistance to Ba’ath rule, one activist said nobody was taking part in the referendum.

“We will not vote on a constitution drafted by our killer,” he said by satellite telephone.

If the constitution is approved in the vote – an all but a foregone conclusion – it would drop an article making Assad’s Ba’ath party the leader of state and society, allow political pluralism and enact a presidential limit of two seven-year terms.

But the limit will not be enforced retrospectively, meaning that Assad, already in power for 11 years, could serve another two terms after his current one expires in 2014.

Dozens of people lined up to vote in two polling stations visited by a Reuters journalist in Damascus.

“I’ve come to vote for President Bashar, God protect him and give him victory over his enemies,” said one man in his fifties.

Another voter, Majed Elias, said, “This is a national duty; whether I agree or not, I have to come and vote.”

This is Syria’s third referendum since Assad inherited power from his late father. The first installed him as president in 2000 with an official 97.29 percent “Yes” vote. The second renewed his term seven years later with 97.62% in favor.

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