Assad sets February 26th for referendum on new constitution


SYRIAN PRESIDENT Bashar al-Assad yesterday decreed that a referendum on a new constitution would be held on February 26th as opposition spokesmen reported fresh operations by troops in protest hubs.

The new constitution, drafted by a 29-member committee, drops Article 8 of the 1973 constitution that designated the ruling Baath party as “the leader of state and society”. Article 8 has been replaced by a provision that states: “The state’s political system is based on political pluralism and power is expressed democratically through voting.” Articles that mentioned the party’s ideology and the country’s adherence to socialism have been removed.

Under the new constitution, the president, limited to two seven-year terms, retains considerable authority: he is empowered to appoint and dismiss prime ministers and to enact legislation when parliament is not in session.

Parties rooted in religion and ethnicity are banned. Parliamentary elections are to take place 90 days after the referendum.

The Syrian National Council, a coalition of exiles, dismissed the referendum and the elections and accused the government of trying to divert attention from “crimes” it is committing against citizens.

Spokesman Anas al-Abdah said the regime does not have the “moral or political” stature to propose a new constitution.

Writing in the Gulf News, Syrian commentator Sami Moubayed criticised changes put forward as being “too litle, too late”. He said the new constitution would not “solve the country’s political, security and economic problems”, but it “could lay the groundwork . . . for upcoming parliamentary elections” and an early presidential poll that could end the violence and put Syria on the road to real recovery.

Meanwhile, black smoke rose from a burning pipeline carrying fuel from the Homs refinery to Damascus. Anti-regime activists said the Bab Amr district of Homs and several neighbourhoods in nearby Hama had been attacked by government forces. Troops were reportedly making arrests in Barzeh, north of Damascus.

French foreign minister Alain Juppé has renewed a call for the creation of humanitarian corridors for delivering relief supplies to areas under siege. Although he did not suggest that insurgents should be armed, he did observe that the danger of civil conflict was “very high”. France has proposed a €1 million emergency fund for Syria. The UN general assembly is set to discuss the crisis today.