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How Syria's Assad plans to survive

Despite promises of a referendum next week on a new constitution, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime seems to have made a clear decision to base its survival on repression.

By Correspondent / February 16, 2012

Syrian refugees in Lebanon carry Syrian opposition flags as they chant slogans against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in front of the Red Cross offices in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, Thursday, Feb. 16.

Omar Ibrahim/Reuters

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Beirut

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's unrelenting military offensive against rebel-held areas suggests that his regime is basing its survival on repression rather than reform, despite his promise of a referendum next week on a new constitution that could reshape domestic politics, say analysts.

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“Assad has nowhere to go but forward, the military solution is his only option,” says Bilal Saab, a Middle East security expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. “He may not survive at the end of the day, but he is surely not going down without a fight.”

Syria is undergoing its worst period of violence since the uprising began 11 months ago. The rebel stronghold of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, and other towns in the northern Idlib province, near Damascus, and in the south have suffered tank and mortar bombardments.

Casualty figures have soared, on occasion reportedly reaching more than 100 in a single day. The attacks and ambushes waged by the various ad hoc battalions that comprise the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) are shaping the narrative of the opposition struggle, overshadowing peaceful protest marches, and marginalizing to some extent the external political opposition groups.

The timing of the regime’s intensified crackdown coincides with a diplomatic impasse following the recent failure of the United Nations Security Council to agree on a resolution condemning the violence in Syria. The resolution, which won 13 of the 15 Security Council votes, was vetoed by Russia and China.

“[Mr. Assad] believes he has Russian backing for what the regime calls the ‘security solution’ alongside a series of procedural changes to the constitution that he wants people to buy onto as reform,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Feb. 26 referendum

Syria announced yesterday that a referendum will be held on Feb. 26 for a new constitution that would make some striking changes if passed and fully implemented. The proposed new constitution would abolish Article 8, which enshrines Baath Party rule, thereby opening the system to multiparty politics.

However, political parties based on ethnicity and religion are banned, which means that Kurdish groups or the Muslim Brotherhood would not be permitted to stand for elections. The presidency would be reserved for a Muslim male who could serve a maximum of two seven-year terms in office.

Assad was quoted as saying that the new constitution was the “most important stage of reforms,” one that promised a “brilliant future for next generations."

The referendum is the latest in a series of promised reforms unveiled since the unrest began last March. Previous reform initiatives include abolishing state security courts and lifting the draconian emergency law in place since 1963, when the Baath Party seized power in a coup. But other promised reforms have failed to materialize.

Opposition groups have scorned the promise of a new constitution, vowing to boycott the referendum and declaring that it is too late for a reform process.

The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition activist group based in Syria, called on Syrians to “reject and boycott the alleged referendum to confirm the lack of public support for this criminal regime.”

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