Assad calls for freedom vote amid crackdown

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Syrian President Bashar Assad has ordered a referendum on a new constitution that would supposedly allow more political freedom while his forces continued to shell his opponents.

Opponents quickly rejected the move, saying that the regime was stalling and the uprising would accept nothing less than Assad’s overthrow. The referendum call also raises the question of how a nationwide vote could be held at a time when major cities 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 the uprising. But after 11 months of a fearsome crackdown on dissent that has left thousands dead and turned cities into war zones, the opposition says 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 Co-ordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, an umbrella for several opposition groups in Syria and in exile.

Top Syrian ally Russia has backed Assad’s promises of reform and dialogue after Moscow and Beijing earlier this month vetoed a resolution at the UN Security Council calling for the dictator, who leads a family-based dynasty that has ruled the country for 40 years, to step down.

The referendum, announced on Syrian state TV, is set to take place February 26. The current Syrian constitution enshrines the Ba’ath Party, which promotes a form of Arab nationalism inspired by the same political ideologies that in Europe led to rise of fascism, as the leader of the state. But according to the new draft, opposition will be allowed.

The Syrian revolt started in March with mostly peaceful protests against the Assad family dynasty, but the conflict has become far more violent and militarised as disgusted army defectors switch sides. The referendum announcement came during one of the deadliest assaults of the uprising which has led to the death of hundreds of people in Homs.