Assad announces coming referendum on new constitution

Posted Feb. 15, 2012, at 9:21 p.m.

BEIRUT — With his nation plunging toward civil war, Syrian President Bashar Assad announced Wednesday that a nationwide referendum would be held this month on a new constitution that is the centerpiece of what he says is a plan to reform the country.

The opposition dismissed the referendum announcement as an effort to buy time, and it was not clear how the government could carry out a vote in a country riven by violence. Large areas of Syria are no longer even under government control.

The new constitution would enshrine freedom of speech and worship, along with other basic liberties, and end the current monopoly on power held by Assad’s Baath Party, which has ruled for four decades. The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said it could “turn Syria into an example to follow in terms of public freedoms and political plurality.”

But Assad’s foes say the government regularly tramples rights guarantees in the current constitution. They scoffed at the proposed reforms as a sign of desperation.

“This shows Assad is living in an alternate reality,” said Rafif Jouejati, a U.S.-based spokeswoman for the Local Coordinating Committees, a Syrian opposition network. “It’s completely impractical.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney labeled the proposed referendum “laughable.”

“It makes a mockery of the Syrian revolution,” Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One.

The referendum is probably meant in part to please Syria’s dwindling list of foreign allies, notably Moscow, which along with China vetoed a Security Council resolution this month that backed a plan for Assad to give up power. Russia has pressed Assad to push ahead with reforms.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking in The Hague, called the plan for a referendum “a step forward.”

Even as Assad announced the referendum, a thick plume of black smoke billowed from a fuel pipeline in the city of Homs, which has become a focus of the escalating conflict. The government and the opposition accused each other of attacking the pipeline in Syria’s third-largest city.

Opposition activists said the government had launched new assaults on Homs and other rebel strongholds. The opposition reported at least 32 people were killed across the country, reported Al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite network.

In Homs, opposition and human rights activists have accused security forces of indiscriminately shelling civilian areas. The official news agency denied that, saying “armed terrorists groups” are bombing residences in Homs in an effort to spread panic.

At the United Nations, diplomats were working on a General Assembly resolution condemning the Syrian government, which may come to a vote as early as Thursday. General Assembly action carries less legal weight than a Security Council resolution, but cannot be vetoed.

Special correspondent Rima Marrouch contributed to this report.

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