Syrian President Bashar Assad offered on Wednesday to hold multiparty elections
within four months, while his troops assaulted city districts held by rebels
trying to oust him.
Opposition figures immediately spurned the offer, and
the United States dismissed it as “laughable.”
Egypt, in its strongest
language yet on the crisis, called for change that met the Syrian people’s
demands, though it ruled out supporting military intervention.
world pressure to end a crackdown that has cost at least 6,000 lives, Assad
promised a referendum in two weeks’ time on a new constitution leading to
elections within 90 days. At the same time, he made clear he was still intent on
crushing the uprising with tanks and troops.
The military unleashed a new
offensive in Hama, a city with a bloody history of resistance to Assad’s late
father, Hafez, firing at residential neighborhoods with anti-aircraft guns
mounted on armored vehicles, opposition activists said.
shelled parts of Homs for the 13th day in a row. In Damascus, troops backed by
armor swept into the Barzeh district, searching houses and making arrests,
International efforts to halt the carnage have
France said it was negotiating a new UN Security Council
resolution on Syria with Russia, Assad’s ally and main arms supplier, and also
wanted to create humanitarian corridors to ease the plight of civilians caught
up in the violence.
“The idea of humanitarian corridors that I previously
proposed to allow NGOs to reach the zones where there are scandalous massacres
should be discussed at the Security Council,” Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said
on French radio.
He said a UN General Assembly vote on Thursday on a
nonbinding resolution on Syria would be “symbolic.” It follows a February 4 veto
by Russia and China of a draft Security Council resolution that backed an Arab
League call for Assad to quit.
France considers the opposition Syrian
National Council, whose leader is based in Paris, a legitimate partner, but has
said it needs to do more to unite its various sectarian strands.
was also behind the Security Council resolution to create a no-fly zone over
Libya that permitted action by foreign military forces, including NATO. Russia
believes it was misled on that resolution and has vowed not to make the same
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei said he would listen to
Juppé’s views, but added: “If the plan is to use the Security Council and United
Nations to adopt some language to help legitimize regime change, then I’m afraid
international law does not allow this and we cannot support such an
In Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr said
deteriorating conditions in Syria demand swift action. “The time has come for
the required change to avoid a complete explosion in the situation in Syria,” he
Egypt has long been a driving force in the region but has kept a
lower profile on Syria as it deals with its own political turmoil. In contrast,
Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been flexing their diplomatic muscles, keen to end
Assad’s alliance with regional rival Iran.
The Arab League also wants a
joint UN-Arab peacekeeping force to be deployed in Syria and has adopted a
resolution that would allow its members to arm Syrian rebels.
powers are keen to see Assad go but are wary of intervening in Syria.
referendum promise signaled that Assad wants to win the struggle on his own
terms, rather than step down, as the United States, its European allies, Turkey
and the Arab League demand.
According to state media, the draft
constitution to be put to a vote on February 26 would establish a multi-party
system in Syria, under Ba’ath Party rule since 1963. Parliamentary elections
would follow within 90 days of its approval.
It would allow the president
to be elected for two terms of seven years. Assad’s father was president
for 29 years until his death in 2000.
“The political system of the state
will be based on a principle of political plurality and democracy will be
practiced through the voting box,” Syria TV cited the draft as saying.
also said new parties cannot be based on a religion or regional interests, a
clause that would exclude the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood or autonomy- seeking
Melhem al-Droubi, a member of the exiled opposition
Syrian National Council and the Muslim Brotherhood, said Assad must resign
“The truth is that Bashar Assad has increased the killing and
slaughter in Syria. He has lost his legitimacy and we aren’t interested in his
rotten constitutions, old or new,” he said.
The United States also
dismissed the referendum plan.
“Promises of reforms have been usually
followed by increase in brutality and have never been delivered upon by this
regime since the beginning of peaceful demonstrations in Syria,” White House
spokesman Jay Carney said. “The Assad regime’s days are numbered.”
President Barack Obama’s administration is struggling to craft a policy in a
region thick with US strategic priorities including Iraq and Israel and
overshadowed by fears over Iran’s nuclear program.
“The US strategy, as
it stands now, is simply too little, too late,” said Steven Heydemann, a Syria
expert at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.
The United States
cites Syria’s ethnic and sectarian mix, urban population, divided opposition and
powerful military to argue against any Libya-style international
Many analysts believe Assad’s downfall is far from
imminent, although he now faces rebels in an armed insurrection as well as
Syrian forces battered rebel-held areas on
Wednesday, although official media restrictions made it impossible to verify the
accounts provided by activists.
Tanks deployed near the citadel of Hama
shelled the neighborhoods of Faraya, Olailat, Bashoura and al- Hamidiya, and
troops were advancing from the airport, opposition sources said.
activist said communications had been cut in Hama, a Sunni city where Assad’s
father crushed an armed Muslim Brotherhood uprising in 1982, killing many
thousands of civilians.
In the Damascus operation, witnesses said at
least 1,000 soldiers swamped the Barzeh district, a hotbed of opposition to
In Homs, an explosion hit an oil pipeline feeding a refinery,
witnesses said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported two people
killed in Homs’s Baba Amr district in a new wave of shelling in the
Hundreds of people have been killed in the military’s nearly
two-week-old bombardment of rebel-held areas of Homs. Activists and aid groups
report a growing humanitarian crisis there, with food running short and wounded
people unable to get proper care.