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As Crackdown Continues, Syria's Assad Calls For Constitutional Referendum

Civilians flee from fighting on Tuesday, after Syrian army tanks enter the northwestern city of Idlib, Syria.
Civilians flee from fighting on Tuesday, after Syrian army tanks enter the northwestern city of Idlib, Syria.

As government forces continued to shell the cities of Homs and Hama, Syrian President Bashar Assad announced his country would hold a referendum on a new constitution on Feb. 26.

According to the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), the state's official news outlet, the new constitution would end the Baath party's monopoly on power. SANA added:

"The Committee's members stressed their determination, since the Committee's first meeting after the presidential decree on forming it, to prepare an integrated formula of a constitution that guarantees the dignity of the Syrian citizen and secures his basic rights.

"They reiterated their keenness on a constitution that allows to turn Syria into an example to follow in terms of public freedoms and political plurality in a way to lay the foundation for a new stage that will enrich Syria's cultural history."

Assad had already promised changes to his government after protests started last March. But little has changed in the country since and the U.N. estimates that at least 5,400 people were killed last year, as the government tried to put an end to the uprising.

Bloomberg reports that Assad's concession was met with a skepticism. They report:

"'This isn't a constitution that has been voted on by an elected assembly; it's been created by Baathist bureaucrats and presented for a referendum to the public,' said Chris Phillips, a lecturer in international relations specializing in the Middle East at Queen Mary College in London. 'Right from the word go it's not even in the spirit of open multiparty politics.'"

"Syria's army has intensified attacks since a resolution supported by the Arab League aimed at installing a transitional government, to be followed by elections, was vetoed by Russia and China on Feb. 4. Syrian security forces have [been] deploying tanks, armored vehicles and using heavy artillery and machine guns, according to activists.

"The Arab League has called for the formation of an Arab-UN peacekeeping force. The league said on Feb. 12 it will ask the Security Council to authorize a joint mission to supervise implementation of a cease-fire, to replace an Arab League observation mission that was suspended as violence against protesters continued. Syria has rejected the plan."

In related Syria news, Russia's foreign minister said he was meeting with his French counterpart to renegotiate a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the violence.

According to the AP, Sergey Lavrov also said a constitutional reform was a "step forward."

"It is coming late unfortunately but better late than never," Lavrov said, according to the AP.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.