DAMASCUS, Syria – Syria defied international calls to halt attacks on rebel enclaves as at least 89 people were killed nationwide Saturday on the eve of a constitutional referendum that the opposition sees as a ploy by President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Assad presented the revised charter – which allows for at least a theoretical opening of the country’s political system – as an effort to placate critics and quell the 11-month uprising against his rule.
But the vote is unlikely to overshadow a new round of international condemnation and calls that Assad leave power.
Assad was roundly criticized Friday at a major international conference on the Syrian crisis in Tunisia, where U.S., European and Arab officials began planning a civilian peacekeeping mission to deploy after the regime falls.
In the capital Damascus, where Assad retains support among religious minorities and the business class, many said they were eager to vote.
“This constitution is not for one faction against the other,” said Suhban Elewi, a 55-year-old businessman who trades in antiquities. “It is for the nation and for all the Syrian people.”
But the suggestion of political reform led by Assad’s regime rang hollow in many parts of the country, where government security forces continued their deadly crackdown on rebels seeking to end Assad’s rule.
The violence could also prevent the vote from taking place nationwide.
An activist in a neighborhood in the central city of Homs that government forces have besieged and shelled daily for one month laughed when asked about the vote.
“How can they ask us to talk about a new constitution when they are shelling our neighborhood?” Abu Mohammed Ibrahim said via Skype from the embattled neighborhood of Baba Amr. “They are hitting us with all types of weapons. What constitution? What referendum?”