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The day after Syrians approved a new Constitution in a nationwide referendum, which ostensibly could lead to a more democratic system of government, President Bashar al-Assad appeared to be voting with his tanks for continued repression.
Reuters reports that, according to activists in the opposition stronghold of Homs, Mr. Assad sent tanks and troops from an elite armored division of the Syrian Army led by his brother into the city. The tanks were reportedly labeled "Fourth Division Monsters."
Since an aerial bombardment of Homs began three weeks ago, residents had expressed fear that the brutal air assault against the city was merely laying the groundwork for a ground invasion by the Army.
Hundreds have died in the air assault on Homs – activists estimated 68 deaths yesterday alone, Bloomberg reports, and footage of the carnage has flooded YouTube and social networking sites. But an influx of troops could be yet worse in some ways, potentially leading to door-to-door sweeps, arrests, and potential torture of detainees out of the spotlight of media and fellow citizens.
As the death toll climbs past 8,000 (according to human rights groups) and Assad continues to defy all Western attempts to pressure him into ending the violence, international leaders are scrambling to find a course of action. Yesterday the European Union ratcheted up sanctions on the Syrian regime by placing sanctions on the central bank and seven more government ministers, banning cargo flights from Syrian airline carriers, and banning trade on gold, diamonds, and some other precious metals, The Wall Street Journal reports.
The EU foreign ministers also recognized the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella group representing the opposition, as a “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people (but not “the” legitimate representative, as happened with Libya’s Transitional National Council, as Tony Karon notes in Time.)
Western leaders called the constitutional referendum and its results a farce. But Russia and China – who have repeatedly blocked international efforts to take stronger action against Syria – said they were a step toward reform and reiterated their opposition to a military intervention in Syria, The New York Times reports.
“No one should be allowed to employ the Libyan scenario in Syria,” [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin wrote. “I would like to warn our Western colleagues against the temptation to resort to this simple, if previously used, tactic.
"No good can come of it. In any case, it will not help reach a settlement in a country that is going through a domestic conflict.”
According to the Syrian government, 89.4 percent of voters backed the new Constitution, which allows for a multiparty democracy. Almost 60 percent of eligible voters voted, which Interior Minister Maj. Gen. Muhammad Ibrahim al-Shaar said was a good showing given “the threats and intimidation by armed terrorist groups,” the Times reports. The government has consistently described the opposition as armed gangs or terrorists.
Statements from the regime that the new Constitution was a step toward reform were almost universally panned in the West.
The Monitor’s Dan Murphy writes that the routine rigging of elections, torture, and murder of dissidents, and the Assad family’s determination to hold on to power (Bashar al-Assad was preceded by his father, Hafez) make it unlikely that the regime intends to implement the promised constitutional reforms. Even if they did, the brutality shown toward the opposition makes it unlikely that anti-Assad Syrians could work with the leader, he argues.
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.
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.
Tony Karon writes in Time that Assad is no longer able to crush the uprising outright, and that his goal now is to remain a part of the political landscape and to secure a place in government alongside the opposition. The appetite for intervention has not increased in the West, but Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been intensifying calls to arm the rebel Free Syrian Army.
By militarizing the political contest in Syria, Assad has effectively created a sectarian civil war that presents the Syrian population with stark choices that work in his favor. And the more intense and protracted the military conflict becomes, the greater the danger that the de facto leadership of the rebellion passes to more extreme and sectarian elements — which, of course, reinforces Assad’s own hold on his core support.
All sides in Syria, then, appear to be hunkering down for a protracted civil war — a conflict of a type that, given the external backing on which the combatants rely, is unlikely to end in a rout by either side. And if it ends at the negotiation table, as the Balkan wars of the 1990s did, Assad will be hoping at least to secure his place as a key player at the table. Indeed, even the SNC in a statement last Friday appeared to walk back from its refusal to engage with the regime, saying that negotiation — if the regime first agrees to a cease-fire — ”is still possible and is likely the best way to achieve the desired goal of regime change.”