As Syria holds referendum on constitution, rebels vow to fight on

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 26, 2012 

WADI KHALID, Lebanon — On the Lebanon-Syria border, Syrian refugees scoffed Sunday at the idea of a referendum on a new constitution proposed by President Bashar Assad.

"Homs is completely destroyed," said Firas, 25, who left Syria five months ago. "Who is voting? (Assad) is telling lies to himself. Everyone around the world knows it's a big lie."

Firas asked that his last name be withheld because he still has family in Homs, Syria's third largest city. Homs has become the center of the year-old rebellion against al-Assad's government.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed with the rebels. "It's a phony referendum and it is going to be used by Assad to justify what he's doing to other Syrian citizens," Clinton told CBS News in Rabat, Morocco.

Syrian activists posted videos of demonstrations on Sunday against the referendum across the country. The proposed constitution would, in theory, make Syria a multi-party democracy, ending nearly five decades of rule by the Baath Party.

But in Damascus, the Syrian capital, not everyone was cynical about the promise of reforms, with voters lining up to cast ballots in favor of the changes to the constitution.

Their calls weren't much different from the revolutionaries — greater freedoms, political participation and justice — but they said trusting the regime to implement the reforms was safer than risking a bloody civil war by relying on unknown, possibly foreign-backed elements to implement change.

"By reading the history of our republic since the French occupation, our country has always come out of any problem through the unity of the Syrian people with all its religious sects," said voter Yara Ismail, 24, who works in marketing. "And today the people will have the first role in extracting Syria from these events and building a new country on the basis of a new constitution and the political, social and economic improvements our president already has started."

Ahmad al Moussili, 32, a teacher, said he voted because he believes that the government was serious about reform this time. To him, the evidence was in the new constitution's promise of greater freedom of expression, which he said would allow for more flexibility in negotiations between leaders and protesters.

"Because the Syrians are an educated, united and mature people, and have lived in harmony with sects since the beginning, it's much stronger than all the external forces, which definitely will fail," Moussili said.

Rebels in Baba Amr, the most heavily damaged part of Homs, turned the vote into a joke as Syrian troops shelled the neighborhood for the 23rd straight day. They set up their own "polling station," where wounded fighters and civilians, some heavily bandaged and limping, dropped pieces of Syrian army ordnance into a box marked "The New Constitution."

"Today is the referendum in Baba Amr, and thanks to God, there are lots of people voting," said a man holding the tailfin of a mortar round as though it were a reporter's microphone.

According to activists, at least 34 people were killed across the country Sunday. The activists reported that some civilians managed to escape Baba Amr on Sunday, while a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross said that negotiations to evacuate civilians and wounded from the area had failed for a second straight day.

Mulham al Jundi, 26, an opposition activist who spoke from Homs via the online phone service Skype, said he was in the quieter eastern part of the city and couldn't reach the besieged district of Baba Amr when he tried last week.

He'd planned to try again, he said, but was shot in the leg Friday at a demonstration and hadn't received more than rudimentary care at a field hospital. Throughout Homs, he said, government snipers are in position and all public offices were closed. Shops, restaurants and schools also were shuttered, Jundi added.

Meanwhile, casualties continue to stream into makeshift clinics and the gunfire hasn't ceased. Jundi said he tried to force himself to sleep to help his recovery, but the sounds of warfare began anew at 6 a.m. Sunday. He got out of bed and positioned his laptop in a window, from which he live-streamed video footage of the Homs cityscape for the next two hours, capturing chilling sounds of blasts and gunfire.

Holding any kind of vote under such circumstances, he said, was ludicrous.

"I'm not sure how Mr. President is trying to convince us to vote while he's killing us," said Jundi, who left his job as a network engineer in Saudi Arabia only weeks ago to return to his native Homs to join what he calls "the revolution."

Jundi, who belongs to the Syrian National Council, the main umbrella group for opposition forces, said Homs residents were distraught over why there's still talk of humanitarian aid and sanctions when the death toll continues to rise, sometimes by dozens a day, according to activists.

"It was a good move by Saudi Arabia to get out of that game," Jundi said of the Gulf kingdom's decision to walk out of an international summit on Syria that took place in Tunisia over the weekend. The Saudis reportedly thought the exercise a waste of time unless the option of arming the rebels was under serious discussion.

Jundi said many Syrians agreed with that stance.

"The Syrian people don't need medicine or food, but it seems that no country wants to be involved in a real war with Assad," he said. "We have one goal: to get rid of this regime. If the international community can just provide us weapons, I think we can do it."

As the Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis earlier this week failed to produce any consensus on providing aid to the rebels fighting Assad's government or a plan to stop the violence, rebels in Lebanon said the conflict would just become more intractable.

Northern Lebanon's Sunnis have thrown their support heavily behind the Free Syrian Army but lament the mismatch. Many have already sold or given light weapons to the rebels. The Syrian government and upper echelons of the military are dominated by Allawites, a Shiite Muslim sect that makes up about 10 percent of the country's population. About 75 percent are Sunni Muslim.

"There are no weapons going to Syria anymore" from Lebanon, said Moyeen Murabi, a member of parliament from the city of Akkar. Murabi said that the Syrian military has increased its presence on the border and laid new mines in recent months, and that factions of the Lebanese government that are sympathetic to the Syrian regime have helped interdict smugglers.

"If you can find me a way, I would be proud to send weapons," Murabi said. "The Free Syrian Army are defending the people."

In Wadi Khalid, others said that they would return to Syria to fight.

"It's destiny," said Abdel Halim, a 23-year-old from Homs, when asked whether he was afraid of the Syrian army's superior firepower.

"Everyone has lost someone," said the young man, who asked that his last name be withheld because he feared for family still in Syria.

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. A Syrian correspondent who wishes to remain anonymous for security reasons contributed.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2012

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