- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 15, 2012

BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad ordered a referendum for later this month on a new constitution that would allow political parties other than his ruling Baath Party, the centerpiece of reforms he has promised to ease the political crisis, even as the Syrian military on Wednesday besieged rebellious areas.

The opposition quickly rejected the move, saying that the regime was stalling and that Syrians in the uprising would accept nothing less than Mr. Assad’s ouster. The referendum call 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.

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. But after 11 months of a fearsome crackdown on dissent that has left thousands dead and turned some cities into war zones, the opposition says Mr. Assad and his regime 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.

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

The referendum, announced on Syrian state TV, was set for Feb. 26. The current Syrian Constitution enshrines Mr. Assad’s Baath Party as the leader of the state. But according to the new draft, obtained by the Associated Press, “the state’s political system is based on political pluralism and power is practiced democratically through voting.”

The draft also says the president can hold office only for a maximum of two seven-year terms. Mr. Assad, who inherited power from his father, has been in power for nearly 12 years. His father, Hafez, ruled for 30 years.

The vetoes at the U.N. infuriated the West and Arab states, which now are considering giving greater support to the Syrian opposition. Russia says it rejects any U.N. calls on Mr. Assad to step aside because they would prejudice attempts to find an internal solution — even as the opposition says that promises of reform and dialogue are a dead end.

In the Netherlands, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he will meet his French counterpart in Vienna, Austria, on Thursday and discuss a plan to rework the U.N. Security Council resolution.

Mr. Lavrov said Wednesday he could not comment on the French plan without having seen the language of the proposed resolution. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said earlier Wednesday that his country is trying to rework the resolution to overcome Russian resistance. France has been one of the harshest critics of Mr. Assad’s crackdown.

Mr. Lavrov praised the referendum call, saying “a new constitution to end one-party rule in Syria is a step forward. … It is coming late, unfortunately, but better late than never.” He said the international community should press on the opposition to enter negotiations with Mr. Assad.

The Syrian revolt started in March with mostly peaceful protests against the Assad family dynasty, but the conflict has become far more violent and militarized in recent months as army defectors fight back against government forces.

Many observers fear it is taking on the dimensions of a civil war. Navanethem “Navi” Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told the U.N. General Assembly this week that more than 5,400 people were killed last year alone and that the number of dead and injured continues to rise daily in Syria.

Wednesday’s referendum announcement came during one of the deadliest assaults of the uprising. The government has been shelling the rebellious city of Homs for more than a week, and the humanitarian situation was deteriorating rapidly. Activists say hundreds have been killed, and there was no way to treat the wounded.

The violence continued Wednesday. Thick black smoke billowed out of what appeared to be a residential area of Homs in amateur video posted online, after an attack on an oil pipeline that runs through the city.

Activists accused regime forces of hitting the pipeline. It runs through the rebel-held neighborhood of Baba Amr, which has been shelled by regime troops for the past 12 days, according to two activist groups, the Local Coordination Committees and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The state news agency, SANA, blamed “armed terrorists” for Wednesday’s pipeline attack. It said the pipeline feeds the tanks in the Damascus suburb of Adra, which contribute in supplying gasoline to the capital and southern regions.

Last week, an oil refinery in Homs — one of two in Syria — was hit and caught on fire during the fighting. Syria’s oil and gas pipelines have been attacked before during the 11-month uprising.

Also Wednesday, regime troops stormed several residential neighborhoods in the nearby city of Hama, activists said. The LCC said 13 people were killed in violence around the country on Wednesday, while the Observatory put the death toll at five.

Late Tuesday, pro-Assad forces and army defectors battled for hours in intense clashes in the northern town of Atareb, activists and SANA reported. The Observatory said nine civilians, four defectors and seven soldiers were killed. SANA put the toll at five soldiers and nine gunmen.

Also Wednesday, the government organized a trip for journalists to Harasta, one of several suburbs of Damascus that saw heavy fighting between troops and defectors before Mr. Assad’s forces retook the areas in late January.

Two checkpoints were set up at the entrance of the town of about 60,000. A large car dealership had its wide windows riddled with bullets.

Harasta Mayor Adnan al-Wazzi told reporters that the checkpoints were necessary to prevent gunmen from entering.

“There were masked gunmen who used to open fire, especially at night,” said Nour Faraj, a 16-year-old worker. “Now we feel security with security presence. We did not dare go out in the streets before.”

Syria largely has prevented any independent reporting inside the country, making it nearly impossible to independently confirm reports of casualties. But the regime will escort reporters on occasional organized trips to areas it controls.

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