Feb
26

Syria votes on new constitution as shelling of Homs continues

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Referendum to clear way for multi-party elections derided by critics both in Syria and beyond as violent crackdown continues

Syrians have taken part in a referendum to clear the way for multi-party elections that could see Bashar al-Assad entrenched as Syrian president until 2028 in a vote widely dismissed by the opposition as a figleaf for reform.

Turnout appeared to be mixed across the volatile country, with voter numbers noticeably higher in areas in which Assad still enjoys support, such as Damascus and the commercial hub of Aleppo.

As voters cast their ballots elsewhere, rockets again rained down on the country’s third city of Homs, where civilians in rebel-held areas remain trapped by more than three weeks of regime shellfire. Nationwide, more than 50 people have been killed each day for at least the past week, according to local activists and civilian journalists. Most of the deaths have been in the Baba Amr and al-Khalideya districts of Homs, where at least 20 more died on Sunday.

Syrian officials acknowledged that voting was lower in unstable areas. The result of the referendum, which will change the country’s constitution, appears to be a foregone conclusion with most of those who turn out likely to vote yes to the reforms.

The referendum was held up as a centrepiece of Assad’s reform programme, which was drafted as a response to a sustained challenge to the totalitarian state that he and his father before him have ruled for more than 40 years.

It would mean that the Ba’ath party, which has underpinned the rule of the Assad clan, would no longer be the ultimate arbiter of civilian life in Syria. Opposition groups would ostensibly be free to stand in future elections.

The rule limiting a president’s maximum term in office to 14 years will not be applied retrospectively, however, meaning Assad could still serve two more terms from the next election, likely to be held in 2014.

As with other reforms flagged during an increasingly savage year-long crackdown, the referendum was roundly dismissed Syria’s opposition groups and by the west, which insist Assad has lost all legitimacy.

Turkey said the ongoing crackdown on dissent belied calls for refom. The White House described the referendum as meaningless, and the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said it 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 in a statement.

The Friends of Syria conference, which was attended by more than 70 states in Tunis over the weekend also denounced the process, which it said was designed to create a veneer of change while the lethal assault on opposition groups – some of them armed – continued unabated.

The US secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, who was in Tunis, made her first statement on a push to arm Syria’s rebels, indicating that the US objection to such a move had not changed despite the remarks of several leading congressmen. Clinton said military intervention would be perilous.

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

“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.”

Efforts to evacuate the wounded from Baba Amr, including two western reporters and the bodies of their two colleagues, appear to have hit a stalemate, despite increasingly urgent pleas from Europe.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been trying since the deaths last Wednesday of Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik to get scores of wounded to hospitals in Lebanon.

Talks to move the casualties broke down several times over the weekend. Some observers said the delay was the result of a lack of trust. The Free Syrian Army was said to have rejected two ambulances that were sent into Baba Amr, partly because it could not guarantee where the wounded would be taken.

Kate Conroy, the wife of injured photographer Paul Conroy said that although she could reluctantly appreciate the Foreign Office view that it was too diffilcut to provide an escort to help with his rescue, she would nonetheless “like it if somebody in that embassy was to say: ‘Forget the protocol, I’m going and I’m going to get them out.’”

Essential services have collapsed in rebel held parts of Homs and healthcare has been whittled down to bare basics through a four month siege that has trapped up to 20,000 people. Beseiged neighbourhoods claim they are receiving only several hours of electricity each day and are desperately low on food and water.

Baba Amr was a key hub for the Free Syrian Army, which had largely been left to its own devices until an artillery assault was ordered 24 days ago. It has since been reduced to a series of ghettos. Syrian forces have edged closer but have not yet entered, though opposition activists in the neighbourhood expect a ground assault is imminent.

Martin Chulov

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from Martin Chulov

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