Assad Calls Referendum on Syria’s Constitution Amid Violence for Feb. 26

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called a referendum on a new constitution for Feb. 26 amid an escalating conflict between his army and opposition groups.

The draft document, published on the Syrian Arab News Agency today, promises “political pluralism” and democratic elections and limits presidents to two seven-year terms. Assad’s Baath party has had a monopoly in politics since it banned opposition groups after seizing power in a 1963 coup.

Assad promised constitutional changes last year after protests against his government broke out in mid-March. Thousands have died since then as security forces cracked down on the opposition. The United Nations estimated that more than 5,400 people had been killed in Syria as of Jan. 10.

“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 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.

The proposed constitution “is not the first proposed reform from the government during this crisis and it’s unlikely to be the last,” Phillips said. It’s “highly unlikely to win over the people who are on the streets demonstrating against President Assad.”

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