- Syria forces storm town, searching for military defectors, an opposition member says
- At least 32 people were killed Wednesday, the LCC says
- A U.N. General Assembly vote could happen this week
- Al-Assad's regime blames terrorists for the pipeline sabotage
The embattled Syrian president announced a constitutional referendum Wednesday as his forces pummeled Homs and other towns where people cried out for his regime to end.
President Bashar al-Assad set February 26 for the vote on a draft constitution, hailed by his government as an important reform initiative. But analysts and demonstrators ridiculed the effort as "window dressing," the latest in a series of superficial measures undertaken to mollify his critics over the last 11 months.
Members of a committee tasked with drafting the document "reiterated their keenness on a constitution that allows ... public freedoms and political plurality in a way to lay the foundation for a new stage that will enrich Syria's cultural history," the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported.
Former Syrian lawmaker George Jabbour said "clause 8 of the new draft of the constitution is the essential point" of the document. It "allows a multi-party system as opposed to the Baath party being the leading party of the society and the state as stipulated in the current constitution." The Baath party rules Syria.
Jabbour said "special committees will be formed to look into the licensing of new parties in line with the new constitution."
As for presidential elections, they "will be competitive since there is no leading party anymore, and all the parties' candidates are eligible provided their candidacy is endorsed by at least 35 members of parliament," Jabbour said.
Also, the draft forbids the creation of any political activity, or parties, or political gatherings based on religion, ethnicity, tribe or region. It forbids discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, or color.
In Daraa, anti-government demonstrators held up signs indicating they were unimpressed: "If the new constitution doesn't include a decree that guarantees the execution of the murders, any draft will be meaningless," said one that was posted on YouTube. An electronic ticker in the square was even more blunt: "We want Bashar and his agents executed," it read.
In Homs, an opposition activist called the announcement about the referendum "bullshit."
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was more diplomatic. "From our perspective, it looks like he is putting forward a piece of paper that he controls, to a vote that he controls, in an effort to try and maintain control," she said. "And frankly, it is not working in any other capacity, so we don't think this is going to work, either. He knows what he needs to do, if he really cares about his people the violence just needs to come to an end and he needs to get out of the way so we can have a democratic transition."
The calls for reform that predominated in the early months of the uprising have been demands for al-Assad's ouster. Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Doha Center, called al-Assad's latest moves toward reform "a little bit too late."
"It's not so much the message, but the messenger," he said.
Andrew Tabler, Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, called the document "window dressing," citing the banning of many parties and the fact that government permission is needed to form a party.
"It's not going to change the fact that it's a minority-dominated situation," he said. "It will remain a presidential system with powers vested in the hands of the president."
Tabler said al-Assad is using this "tactic to get people to leave the streets."
At least 32 people killed were killed across the country Wednesday, including three children, a woman and a defected soldier, according to the according to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an opposition group that tracks reports of violence and organizes anti-government protests.
The deaths occurred in Homs, Idlib, Daraa, Hama, Latakiya, Aleppo, Hasaka, Damascus and the Damascus suburbs.
In southwestern Syria, near the Jordanian border, al-Assad's forces stormed the village of Sahm al-Golan looking for military defectors, according to a member of the opposition in the town who asked to be identified only as Abu Issam out a fear of reprisal.
Syrian forces shelled the town and used tanks, forcing many residents to flee toward the Jordanian border, Issam said.
"Yesterday there were defections in the neighboring town of Tseel, and the Syrian forces attacked the town and could not find any defectors. So they came today to Sahm al-Golan," he said.
In the same region of the country, the Syrian army reportedly took control of Zabadani, where soldiers and tanks made a show of force along the streets, according to Mohamed Ali, an opposition Syrian Revolution Coordination union member for the town.
Artillery and automatic machinegun fire echoed through Homs Wednesday, a city of 1 million people, CNN's Arwa Damon reported from inside the city. Opposition activists say government forces are intent on flattening every neighborhood that might hold dissidents.
The Syrian regime said an "armed terrorist group" sabotaged a diesel pipeline near the Homs neighborhoods of Baba Amr and Sultanieh, state-run media said.
But the LCC told CNN that government warplanes flying over Baba Amr blew up an oil pipeline. Amateur video showed columns of smoke on the ground.
There are "cases of suffocation in the neighborhood of Baba Amr from the smoke that is developing after the explosions that hit the oil pipelines, while the neighborhood is still being shelled," the LCC said.
The LCC said government forces were firing mortars into the Khaldiya neighborhood in Homs, resulting in casualties.
Outside Baba Amr and Khaldiya, shelling, shootings and nail bombings engulfed Homs' Old City, the most populous area of the metropolis with buildings dating back hundreds of years.
"This is in conjunction with a cut of communications, electricity, and water, and heavy deployment of security checkpoints, which imposes a suffocating curfew on the city," the LCC said.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said military forces stormed the city of Hama, where explosions rattled two neighborhoods. The Observatory said landlines, cell phone communication and Internet access in Hama were cut off.
CNN cannot independently confirm details of events across Syria because the government has severely limited the access of international journalists.
But the vast majority of accounts from within the country say that al-Assad's forces are slaughtering civilians en masse, part of a brutal crackdown on protesters calling for democratic reforms. Meanwhile, after repeated U.N. failures to denounce the Syrian government, the latest U.N. draft resolution condemning Syria could be brought to a vote in the General Assembly Thursday.
Though a General Assembly vote would not be binding, it would mark the strongest U.N. statement yet on the violence. Russia and China have vetoed attempts to condemn Syria for the crackdown by the U.N. Security Council, whose resolutions are binding.
The draft resolution calls on Syria to end human rights violations and attacks against civilians immediately, and condemns "all violence, irrespective of where it comes from."
The Arab League, which has been working with the United Nations on the matter, has urged its member states to provide political and financial support to the Syrian opposition.
While no country will say it has provided weapons to the opposition, it is clear the member nations will support those fighting against the regime, an Arab League senior official said.
"The league sort of gave the green light. Indeed, some countries have already supplied the opposition Free Syrian Army with weapons, like Turkey for example," the senior official said.
But a Turkish Foreign Ministry official Wednesday denied any such military support or aid to the resistance force. Turkey is not an Arab nation and is not a member of the Arab League.
Free Syrian Army Lt. Col. Mohamed Hamado said that the force's weapons were coming from inside Syria.
"We are hoping a political decision soon will provide us with more weapons," he said.
The Syrian National Council, the major opposition umbrella group, met Wednesday in Doha, Qatar, and agreed to extend the presidency of Burhan Ghalion by three months, according to Naji Tayara, a member in the Syrian National Council Foreign Relations Committee.
The United Nations has said since December that more than 5,000 people have been killed, but has not been able to update the number due to the turmoil on the ground. The LCC has said more than 7,000 people have been killed.
European Union diplomats said they expect new EU sanctions by February 27 that would target the Syrian Central Bank and impose a ban on exports of precious metals and phosphates.