BEIRUT - President Bashar Assad of Syria ordered a referendum yesterday to be held Feb. 26 on a new constitution, a move that appeared unlikely to defuse the country’s rapidly escalating crisis.
The document allows multiple political parties to compete in elections for the legislature, sets a limit of two seven-year terms on the president, and eliminates a clause that guarantees political supremacy to Assad’s Ba’ath Party, according to copies of the draft circulating in the Syrian press.
But it also gives sweeping powers to the president to decree laws, appoint the government, and dissolve Parliament, and seemed designed to ensure that the current system remains largely intact. With most members of the opposition calling for the complete ouster of the Assad regime, activists said the document falls far short of their demands for radical change.
“It’s a nonstarter,’’ said Shakeeb al-Jabri, a prodemocracy activist who is based in Beirut. “It’s incredibly weak. The powers it gives to people are limited. It confirms our fears that there will be no true reform under Assad, only cosmetic reforms.’’
The announcement comes amid a major offensive launched by Syrian security forces to quell the country’s 11-month-old revolt, in which more than 5,400 people have been killed, according to the United Nations. Hundreds have reportedly died in the latest siege, in the city of Homs, which has emerged as the epicenter of the increasingly armed revolt.
Yesterday, security forces expanded the offensive to include the city of Hama, and attacks have also taken place in opposition strongholds in the northern province of Idlib, the eastern province of Deir el Zour, and the southern province of Dara. The human rights advocacy group Avaaz said it had documented 20 deaths in yesterday’s attacks.
Activists questioned how the government intended to hold a referendum at a time when violence is engulfing the country. “I’m not sure how people are supposed to go out and vote when their towns and cities are under bombardment,’’ Jabri said.
The intensity of this offensive, which began on the eve of a failed attempt by the United States and its allies to secure a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria, suggests the government may be hoping it can crush the uprising before Feb. 26. The resolution, intended to add weight to an Arab League proposal for Assad to surrender power, was vetoed by Russia and China.
Russia has since thrown its full support behind Assad’s reform program, which had been promised since the start of the uprising nearly a year ago.
During a speech in January, Assad pledged to hold a referendum in February, and yesterday, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the move as better late than never.
“Of course, we believe that the adoption of a new constitution in Syria is a step forward toward political pluralism,’’ Lavrov said, following talks with his Dutch counterpart Uri Rosenthal in The Hague.
The announcement of a date for the vote came ahead of an expected flurry of diplomatic activity in the coming days aimed at solving the Syria crisis, which many fear could escalate into a full-blown war and spill beyond its borders.
Lavrov is expected to meet today with Foreign Minister Alain Juppe of France to discuss a French proposal for a new Security Council resolution. Later in the day, the UN General Assembly is due to vote on a nonbinding resolution put forward by the Arab League that would condemn the brutality of the Syrian security forces and call for their withdrawal from residential areas.
On Feb. 24, officials from the United States, the European Union, and the Arab League are among those expected to attend a Friends of Syria meeting called by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Tunisia to explore ways of helping the Syrian opposition in its efforts to force Assad’s departure.
A French Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters in Paris yesterday that Juppe plans to raise the possibility of opening “humanitarian corridors’’ into Syria to aid suffering civilians, a suggestion that has been raised before but not seriously pursued.
The moves point to a sharp divide within the international community between those who want Assad to leave, led by the United States, and those backed by Russia, including Iran and China, who support his program of limited reforms twinned with a crackdown against the opposition.
Neither strategy seems likely to work, said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“There’s a lot of gambling going on,’’ he said. “The Russians are betting on Assad being able to do the one thing he’s never done, which is reform. And the US is betting on something we’re not able to accomplish, which is to persuade the regime to step down.
“If these don’t work, you’ll have more insurgency and more civil war.’’