Assad calls for Syria vote, but steps up assault

BEIRUT (AP) — As Syrian forces stepped up their assault Wednesday on rebellious cities, President Bashar Assad ordered a referendum on a new constitution that would create a multiparty system in a country that has been ruled by his autocratic family dynasty for 40 years.

Such a change would have been unheard of a year ago, and Assad’s regime is touting the new constitution as the centerpiece of reforms aimed at calming Syria’s upheaval. But after 11 months of bloodshed, with well over 5,000 dead in the regime’s crackdown on protesters and rebels, Assad’s opponents say the referendum and reforms are not enough and that the country’s strongman must go.

“The people in the street today have demands, and one of these demands is the departure of this regime,” said Khalaf Dahowd, a member of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, an umbrella for several opposition groups in Syria and in exile.

The White House also dismissed the referendum. Press secretary Jay Carney called the move “laughable” in light of ongoing brutality by the Syrian military and said it “makes a mockery” of the uprising.

Assad’s call for a referendum, set for Feb. 26, also raises the question of how a nationwide vote could be held at a time when many areas see daily battles between Syrian troops and rebel soldiers.

Regime forces on Wednesday battered rebellious neighborhoods in the central city of Homs, pushing ahead with one of the deadliest assaults of the crackdown that activists say has killed hundreds in the past two weeks, aimed at crushing a city that has been a stronghold of dissent. Black smoke billowed from an oil pipeline in the city that was hit in the fighting, with each side blaming the other for attacking it. Activists reported at leasat eight killed across the country on Wednesday.

Amendments to the constitution once were a key demand by the opposition at the start of Syria’s uprising, when protesters first launched demonstrations calling for change. Assad has also talked of holding parliament elections after the referendum. But after months of the regime’s fearsome crackdown, the opposition dismisses any talk of reform, saying that they don’t believe Assad will really loosen his iron grip on power and that his ouster is the only solution.

Russia, a top Syrian ally, has presented Assad’s reform promises as an alternative way to resolve Syria’s bloodshed. Earlier this month, Moscow and Beijing vetoed a Western- and Arab-backed resolution at the U.N. Security Council aimed at pressuring Assad to step down.

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