Syria sets referendum for Feb. 26 as refugees flock to Lebanon

BEIRUT — Syrian state media announced Wednesday that the country would hold a referendum Feb. 26 on a new constitution even as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees predicted that ongoing fighting in that country would drive growing numbers of Syrians to seek refuge inside Lebanon.

The announcement of the referendum comes as violence rages in a number of Syrian cities, particularly those near the Lebanese border. Syrian government troops continued to shell the city of Homs on Wednesday, and the Syrian army reportedly moved into neighborhoods in the city of Hama, north of Homs, as well.

Syrians fleeing the violence have flooded into Lebanon, though not in the numbers the U.N. had expected. The UNHCR has registered more than 6,000 Syrian refugees in Beirut and northern Lebanon and estimates that another 2,000 to 3,000 are now living in the Bekaa Valley, in eastern Lebanon.

"We keep wondering when we are going to reach the saturation point," said Astrid van Genderen Stort, the UNHCR's senior protection officer in Beirut. "We had expected a much larger influx."

Lebanese activists who have formed a coalition of groups to aid refugees estimated the number of Syrians that have fled since mass demonstrations against the Syrian government began nearly one year ago could be as high as 20,000. They said many of those don't bother to register with the U.N. because they are not in need of aid. Others avoid registering out of fear of being identified by the Syrian government.

In some parts of Lebanon, a pre-existing housing shortage has been exacerbated by the influx of Syrians. Um Bilal, who fled the Syrian government's offensive in Homs, has been living in a shipping container outside the northern Lebanese city of Akkar with her three children for two weeks. She was recently joined by relatives who swelled the number of people in the container to 16.

"We cannot go back until the system has fallen," she said, asking that she be identified only by a nickname out of concern for retaliation by the Syrian government against family members who remain in Syria.

Um Bilal — the nickname means mother of Bilal — said that conditions are so bad in Homs that families are unable to hold funerals for victims of the violence, often interring the dead in gardens rather than risking government wrath by taking the dead to cemeteries.

Um Bilal was joined in the shipping container over the weekend by her sister and her family, who had fled the city of Hama. Her sister's husband said that what had been peaceful demonstrations in Hama have devolved into armed rebellion that the government has countered with a fury.

"They have been bombing Hama with airplanes for the last four days," said Abu Abdullah, Um Bilal's brother in law, who also asked to go by his nickname, father of Abdullah. The claim of aerial bombardment could not be confirmed.

Refugees could be found living in similar conditions in central Lebanon as well.

Abdullah Tassi is a Lebanese doctor from Zahle, about 30 kilometers west of the Syrian border. He has been active in sending humanitarian supplies into Syria and aiding those who have fled to Lebanon.

Tassi described a growing crisis in places like the Damascus suburb of Zabadani, which has been subjected to nearly two weeks of government offensives and temporary ceasefires as government troops try to dislodge militiamen, many of whom are army defectors.

Tassi said that based on his interviews with refugees, he believed that most of Zabadani's residents had left the city, and that perhaps only 10 percent to 20 percent of the city's population was still there. But he declined to help arrange interviews with Zabadani residents.

"We have families in Bekaa from Zabadani, but none of them are ready to talk to a reporter," he said.

"We left because there was indiscriminate shelling by tanks," said Nofa, a woman who fled Homs and now shares two rooms with her 10 children on the outskirts of Zahle, a city of 50,000 in central Lebanon. Nofa, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said that her husband's second wife, who also has 10 children, was living in similar conditions nearby, and that the entire family was dependent on the salaries of two daughters who had managed to find work in a nearby factory. A woodstove that kept one of the rooms warm had been donated by a Lebanese aid group.

Fleeing Syria has become increasingly difficult, refugees report. The Syrian government reportedly has deployed more of its soldiers along its traditionally porous border with Lebanon. There also have been reports that the Syrian military has recently laid mines along some parts of the border.

Nonetheless, Tassi said the flow of refugees into the Bekaa Valley had remained consistent, and that activists had begun petitioning the government for permission to build a refugee camp there.

"We'll do it even if they won't give us permission," he said.

Abu Abdullah said his family had fled with little but the clothes on their backs because Syrian troops were turning back anyone who appeared to be leaving the country long term. He said that he had paid a bribe to cross the border, the equivalent of about $40.

According to other Syrian refugees and activists, the average bribe for being allowed to cross was only about $2 three months ago.

An unknown number of Syrians are displaced inside the country.

Assad's call for the referendum in less than two weeks was unlikely to quell the violence. The opposition rejected it, as did the United States and other countries that are pressing for Assad to step down.

Syrian state media said approval of the proposed new constitution would lead to parliamentary elections within three months and would establish a multi-party state. Only one party, Assad's Baath party, has been allowed to operate in the country since 1963.

The new constitution would impose limits on how long a president can serve — two seven-year terms. Assad already has been president for 12 years, and his father served 29 years as president before his death in 2000.

New political parties, however, could not be based on religion or ethnic interests under the proposed constitution, a clause that would prohibit the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood or Kurdish parties from organizing.

It was unclear how the Syrian government intends to carry out the referendum in less than two weeks with fierce fighting in some of Syria's largest population centers.

The White House rejected the referendum.

"Promises of reforms have been usually followed by increase in brutality and have never been delivered upon by this regime since the beginning of peaceful demonstrations in Syria," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "The Assad regime's days are numbered."

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


Syrian violence finds its echo in Lebanon

U.S. officials: Al Qaida behind Syria bombings

Arab monitors were unprepared for Syria, report shows

Follow McClatchy on Twitter.

Related stories from McClatchy DC