Fresh violence clouds Syria voting for new constitution
DAMASCUS / ANKARA
Syrians vote during a referendum on a new constitution in Damascus. Despite the changes, the opposition boycotted the vote, demanding President al-Assad quit. REUTERS photoThe Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a military bombardment of opposition districts in Homs, now in its fourth week, had killed nine civilians, while rebel fighters had killed four soldiers in clashes in the city. The British-based Observatory said eight civilians and 10 members of the security forces were killed in violence elsewhere in the country.
More than 14 million people over the age of 18 were eligible to vote at 13,835 polling stations. Opposition forces called on Syrians to boycott the referendum, with the United States calling the vote “laughable” and the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle declaring it “nothing but a farce.” “Sham votes cannot contribute to a solution to the crisis. Al-Assad needs to put an end to the violence and clear the way for a political transition,” he said in a statement.
If the constitution is approved in the vote - a foregone conclusion - it would drop the article making President Bashar al-Assad’s Baath party the leader of state and society, theoretically allowing for political pluralism and the enacting of a presidential limit of two seven-year terms. But the limit will not be enforced retrospectively, meaning that al-Assad, having already been in power for 11 years, could serve another two terms after his current one expires in 2014. This is Syria’s third referendum since al-Assad inherited power from his late father. The first installed him as president in 2000 with an official 97.29 percent “Yes” vote. The second renewed his term seven years later with 97.62 percent in favor.
Prime Minister Adel Safar, upon being asked about opposition calls for a boycott, said this showed a lack of interest in dialogue. “There are some groups that have a Western and foreign agenda, do not want reforms in Syria, and want to divert Syria’s steadfastness,” he told reporters in Damascus. “We are not concerned with this. We care about spreading democracy and freedom in the country.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned yesterday of the perils of any foreign intervention. “I think there is every possibility of a civil war. Outside intervention would not prevent that, it would probably expedite it,” she told BBC television in an interview.
Turkey plays down Syrian referendum
Syria’s constitutional referendum stands almost no chance of reversing the country’s turmoil, now that thousands of people have been killed and the international community is making fresh efforts to turn up pressure on the regime, according to Turkish diplomatic sources.
“We do not expect much from the referendum. And we don’t think that others entertain any expectations either. What would be the use of reforms and how are they going to be enacted now that so many people have been killed?” a source said.
Following the Friends of Syria meeting in Tunisia last week, Turkey is determined to keep up the pressure on Bashar al-Assad’s regime and maintain an active role within the international bloc supporting the Syrian opposition.
However, the diplomat said it was premature to consider when the Syrian National Council (SNC) could be recognized as the country’s sole legitimate representative, even though it was acknowledged as “a legitimate representative” at the gathering in Tunisia.
“We are not there yet. When the opposition in Libya was recognized as such, the government there had lost physical control in many regions. But like it or not, the central administration in Syria has control over the whole country, unfortunately at the expense of killing its own people,” the source said.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu will have consultations with the council, which, for its part, will be making efforts to bring other opposition groups on board, the source added.