Syria's government said that almost 60 percent of eligible voters turned out for a referendum on a new Constitution today, and almost 90 percent of those voiced their approval.
But the political show is likely to do nothing to mollify Bashar al-Assad's opponents or end the war that is now gripping large parts of the country. Though the new Constitution theoretically allows multiparty competition for power in Syria for the first time since the Baath Party took power in 1963, there's good reason for Mr. Assad's political opponents not to believe it.
Syria's elections have been routinely rigged under Assad, much as they were under his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad. The torture and murder of dissidents has been commonplace for decades. And the younger Assad's actions, far more than his words, show a steely desire to hold on to power as long as possible. US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said the referendum was "clearly a sham."
For real declarations of Assad's intent, you need look no further than Homs today. Last week, a group of foreign journalists was caught in an artillery barrage there, killing the Sunday Times' Marie Colvin and the French photographer Remi Ochlik. The death of the foreigners brought greater international attention to the month-long siege of the city, particularly of its Baba Amr neighborhood, where hundreds of Syrians – political activists and average civilians alike – have been killed.
It was hoped the increased scrutiny, with a number of wounded foreigners trapped inside the city, would lead Assad and allies like Russia, his major arms supplier, to reconsider the situation. Yesterday, US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul wrote that "Homs is on the verge of a major humanitarian catastrophe. Russia should contact Assad immediately to demand a 24-hour humanitarian cease fire."
Though Assad's forces briefly held up on their assault yesterday, allowing the Red Crescent and Red Cross to evacuate about 30 wounded women and children, any hopes for an extended break in the attacks there were dashed today. Syrian activists allege at least 125 people have been killed across Syria today, with 68 of the dead killed in Homs. The Local Coordinating Committees, a loose network of anti-Assad activists inside the country, alleged that dozens of civilians were killed at a checkpoint as they tried to flee the city, though that has not yet been independently confirmed.
Syrian society has now become so polarized, that whatever slim chance a constitutional change would have ever had to shore up Assad's rule has evaporated. The Internet has been filled with horrific videos and photographs of dead and dying civilians and the emotions of the situation – and fears of what Assad would do with his opponents if he were to win a decisive victory – are now a guarantee of ongoing conflict.
The Syrian regime has adopted the accusatory stance of Egypt under Mubarak, Tunisia under Ben Ali, and Libya under Qaddafi last year: That the extent of the uprising and the death toll is the fault of "meddling" outside powers, not of its own mistakes. That was a position Syria reiterated today, even as international human rights groups said the death toll from months of violence is now over 8,000.
The calls from liberal interventionists to arm Syria's rebels, or perhaps for the US and other Western powers to intervene directly, are mounting, though it's hard to see a major international effort against Assad anytime soon. Syria is not Libya.
The country has deep sectarian divisions (Assad's regime draws much of its strength from the minority Alawite sect he belongs to), is in a geopolitically complicated region (Syria shares a border with both Israel and with Iraq, a country whose own sectarian war deposited tens of thousands of refugees inside its borders) and has powerful friends in Russia, China, and Iran.
It's hard to see a fast improvement in the situation. The one thing that's certain is that a new Constitution is not going to be relevant to the ultimate resolution of the country's conflict.