By: Adrian Blomfield
Syrians still loyal to Bashar al-Assad voted in an internationally-derided referendum on a new constitution that could keep their president in power until 2028, even as activists reported the deaths of a further 34 people.
Determined to project an air of normality, the president shrugged off the 11-month uprising against his rule, one which is estimated to have cost 7,500 lives, as largely a fabrication by the international press.
He appeared with his wife British-born wife Asma, both impeccably dressed, smiling and waving to cheering Syrian reporters to cast their ballots at the headquarters of state television and radio in Damascus, one of the country’s few safe areas.
But elsewhere violence raged, with rebels and government forces clashing in the southern province of Deraa, in Idlib in the north and in Deir el-Zour in the east.
At least nine civilians were killed in Homs, the city that for the past 23 days has been subjected to the most ferocious artillery assault of the uprising. Four government soldiers were also killed, according to Syrian human rights activists.
The International Committee for Red Cross said it was still negotiating with both the government and Free Syrian Army rebels in the Baba Amr enclave to attempt an evacuation of wounded and vulnerable civilians.
Among those trapped in the district are Paul Conroy, the Sunday Times photographer wounded in the same attack that killed Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times war correspondent, and Remi Ochlik, the French photographer, last week.
Fresh details of Colvin’s death emerged yesterday, with the Sunday Times reporting that she was killed as she tried to retrieve her shoes so she could flee the bombardment of a building housing the reporters.
Following Arab custom, the reporters had left their shoes at the entrance of the building. When the first of a series of shells hit the buildings upper floors, Colvin ran to where she had left hers but as she reached them a rocket landed at the front of the building, just a few yards from her. The blast killed Ochlik and her instantly.
With people in some parts of Homs cowering from both shells and sniper fire, there was little enthusiasm for Mr Assad’s referendum.
“What should we be voting for, whether to die by bombardment or by bullets? This is the only choice we have,” said Waleed Fares, an activist in the Khalidiyah district of the city.
The new constitution will ostensibly entrench multi-party rule, pave the way for parliamentary elections within three months and limit a president to two seven-year terms, a statute that will only come into force when Mr Assad, in power since 2000, completes his present stint in 2014.
Syria’s main opposition movements boycotted the poll, pointing out that Mr Assad has shown little willingness to abide by the present constitution, which supposedly enshrines free speech and bans torture.
Western politicians described the exercise as “laughable” and again demanded that Mr Assad step down.
“The referendum in Syria is nothing more than a farce,” said Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister. “Sham votes cannot be a contribution to a resolution of the crisis. Assad must finally end the violence and clear the way for a political transition.”
But the West’s leverage remains limited. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, again ruled out the prospect of western military intervention, conceding for the first time that it could play into the hands of Islamic extremists.
“We have a very dangerous set of actors in the region – al Qaeda, Hamas, and those who are on our terrorist list, claiming to support the opposition,” she said, adding that Western action was also hampered by the lack of UN Security Council approval.