Over 100 Syrian civilians and soldiers were killed this past weekend, as the Assad regime and the international community independently stepped up efforts to resolve the crisis that has threatened to plunge the country into civil war.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Syrian military is continuing its bombardment of Homs, which has gone on uninterrupted for over three weeks. The human rights organization also reported intense skirmishes between Syrian troops and army defectors in Daraa, the southern province where the 11-month uprising originated. On Saturday alone, at least 85 people were reported killed.
Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Saturday that the negotiations it was brokering between the Assad regime and opposition groups yielded no breakthroughs. The ICRC is attempting to secure the agreement of both sides to enter Homs and evacuate those in need of medical assistance.
Against this backdrop of violence, the Assad regime held a referendum on a new constitution Sunday. Seen by most as a gesture to placate domestic and international fury, the proposed constitution would theoretically end the 30-plus year rule of the Assad family. The new constitution would omit the current article that declares the ruling Baath party the leader of state and society – effectively creating a multiparty system, and would limit presidential terms to two seven-year tenures.
Turnout is likely to be suspect, as the military continued to bombard opposition positions as voting stations opened across the country. In Homs and Daraa, foci of the most intense clashes and heaviest casualties, amateur video depicted people throwing ballots in the trash in protest. But voters in calmer regions like the capital of Damascus expressed excitement for the referendum, underscoring the support that Assad retains among swaths of Syrian society, as well as the great disparities that typify Syrian civil society.
Critics say that Assad’s ‘reforms’ are too little too late, and cite the fact that the proposed presidential term limit is not retroactive for proof that Assad has no intention of relinquishing power – having already served for 11 years, he would be eligible to serve another 14 years after his current term expires in 2014. The two main Syrian umbrella opposition groups – the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria – urged citizens to boycott the referendum, while other groups called for a general strike.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle responded to the referendum by reiterating the West’s unified opposition to Assad’s continued rule. “The referendum in Syria is nothing more than a farce. Sham votes cannot be a contribution to a resolution of the crisis. Assad must finally end the violence and clear the way for a political transition.”
Westerwelle’s comments follow the inaugural meeting of the ‘Friends of Syria’ that took place this past weekend. Attended by US, European, Turkish, and Arab League diplomats, the two-day conference in Tunisia sought to establish a coherent and coordinated strategy on alleviating the plight of the Syrian people, supporting the opposition, and removing Assad from power. The alliance discussed plans to deploy a civilian peacekeeping force after Assad’s departure, but the Western nations again deferred on the issue of military intervention.