West dismisses Syria poll as siege of Homs continues

Tue, Feb 28, 2012, 00:00

SUNDAY’S VOTE on a new constitution in Syria that could keep the president in power until 2028 was passed by 89.4 per cent of those who cast ballots, the interior ministry said. Nine per cent voted No and 1 per cent spoiled their ballot papers. Turnout was 57.4 per cent.

The results of the poll, which was boycotted by the main opposition groups, were announced as government forces maintained the siege on the rebel-held Bab Amr quarter of the central city of Homs.

While western powers have dismissed the vote as a farce, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called the referendum “an important step on the path of reforms . . . the end of a one-party system in the country should be welcomed”.

He again insisted that all sides must end the violence. “If it is demanded of the government to stop operations to fight militants and the militants have no responsibilities – that is unrealistic.”

British foreign secretary William Hague said the vote had “fooled nobody”, while German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle called the poll “a farce”.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent refused to comment on the progress of negotiations over the evacuation of wounded and sick civilians, including two western journalists, from Bab Amr.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy said that a deal was in the works for the extraction of Frenchwoman Edith Bouvier and Briton Paul Conroy.

“We have the beginnings of a solution . . . it seems that things are starting to move.”

A source close to the negotiations said that neither the authorities nor rebel militias operating under the “Free Syrian Army” umbrella had raised obstacles to the journalists’ retrieval.

Opposition activists said the latest mission was stalled by renewed army shelling that killed 15 people.

Red Crescent volunteers distributed food, medicines and other supplies in contested quarters of Hama, north of Homs, for the first time in six weeks.

While western governments have rejected military involvement in Syria, Saudi Arabia and now Qatar have called for the arming of rebel fighters. Qatari prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said: “I think we should do whatever is necessary to help them, including giving weapons to defend themselves.”

He urged Arab countries to offer rebels a safe haven although Lebanon and Iraq, two of Syria’s Arab neighbours, have rejected such involvement while the third, Jordan, would find it difficult.

Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin reiterated Moscow’s warning to the West against military involvement.

“I very much hope the United States and other countries . . . do not try to set a military scenario in motion in Syria with sanction from the UN Security Council,” he said, making it clear that Moscow would use its veto if this was proposed.

His comments were seen as a riposte to US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s demand that Moscow and Beijing lift their vetoes on a UN Security Council resolution calling for regime change in Damascus.

Mrs Clinton’s characterisation of the vetoes as “despicable” was slammed by the Chinese foreign ministry as “totally unacceptable” while the official China Daily accused Washington of “egotistical super-arrogance”.

Meanwhile, the Saudi-sponsored al-Arabia satellite television channel reported that 20 senior figures in the 270-member Syrian National Council opposition coalition have joined forces with a rival group which opposesmilitary intervention and urges dialogue.

CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGES

- Ruling Ba’ath Party monopoly ended. Several new parties have already been licensed, but the new text forbids political activity or parties based on “religious, sectarian, tribal (or) regional” basis, which would prevent the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood registering, and restrict parties representing minority Kurds.

- Real power to remain with the president, who “lays down the general policy of the state and oversees its implementation”, can declare war or a state of emergency, can draft laws and assumes legislative authority when parliament is not sitting.

- Presidential rule to be limited to two seven-year terms. President Assad’s second term expires in 2014. However, another clause in the constitution says laws will not apply retroactively, implying Assad could serve another two terms until 2028.

- New constitution allows for a contested presidential election, rather than a vote to approve a single candidate. The seven presidential elections since 1971 had only had one name on the ballot paper: Assad – first Hafez and then his son Bashar.

- New constitution drops a clause which describes Syria as a “planned socialist economy”, inserting instead that the economy “shall be based on the principle of developing public and private economic activity through economic and social plans aiming at increasing the national income, developing production, raising the individual’s living standards and creating jobs”.


The text of the new constitution can be found at sana.sy/eng/337/ 2012/02/23/401178.htm