US balks as Assad proposes referendum, elections

Washington dismisses offer as "laughable"; hoping to capitalize on Libya role, France jostles to get in front of any int'l intervention.

Bashar Assad 311  (photo credit: Oded ben Josef)
Bashar Assad 311
(photo credit: Oded ben Josef)
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.
Under 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.
Artillery also 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, witnesses said.
International efforts to halt the carnage have sputtered.
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.
Paris 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 mistake twice.
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 approach.”
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 said.
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.
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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.
Western powers are keen to see Assad go but are wary of intervening in Syria.
The 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.
It 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 Kurdish parties.
Melhem al-Droubi, a member of the exiled opposition Syrian National Council and the Muslim Brotherhood, said Assad must resign now.
“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.”
But 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 intervention.
Many analysts believe Assad’s downfall is far from imminent, although he now faces rebels in an armed insurrection as well as peaceful demonstrators.
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.
An 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 Assad.
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 evening.
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.