AS THE Syrian military besieged rebel strongholds yesterday, the President, Bashar al-Assad, ordered a referendum for later this month on a new constitution that would open the way to political parties other than his ruling Baath Party.
The referendum was announced on Syrian state TV, but it was not immediately clear how a nationwide vote could be held at a time when some areas have seen daily battles between Syrian soldiers and army defectors.
Amendments to Syria's constitution once were a key demand by the opposition at the start of the country's 11-month-old uprising. But following the regime's deadly assault on dissent, many opposition leaders are demanding nothing less than Mr Assad's departure.
"The people in the street today have demands, and one of these demands is the departure of this regime," Khalaf Dahowd, a member of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, an umbrella for several opposition groups in Syria and in exile, said.
He rejected the proposed poll on February 26 as a way for Mr Assad to stall for time.
The Syrian constitution enshrines Mr Assad's Baath Party as the leader of the state. But the new draft, obtained by Associated Press, says "the state's political system is based on political pluralism and power is practiced democratically through voting."
The draft also says the president can hold office only for a maximum of two seven-year terms. Mr Assad, who inherited power from his father, has been in power for nearly 12 years. His father, Hafez, ruled for 30 years.
The Syrian revolt started in March with mostly peaceful protests against the Assad family dynasty, but the conflict has become far more violent and militarised in recent months as army defectors fight back against government forces.
The announcement of the upcoming referendum came during one of the deadliest assaults of the uprising. The government has been shelling the rebellious city of Homs for more than a week, and the humanitarian situation was deteriorating rapidly.
Activists say hundreds have been killed, and there is no way to treat the wounded.
The violence continued yesterday. Activists said an oil pipeline in the central city of Homs was attacked. An amateur video posted online appeared to show thick black smoke billowing from what was claimed to be a residential area.
The Local Coordination Committees and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Homs pipeline was in the rebel-held neighbourhood of Baba Amr, which has been shelled by regime troops for the past 12 days. The state news agency, SANA, blamed "armed terrorists" for yesterday's pipeline attack.
Homs has been one of the cities hardest hit by the crackdown.
Regime troops stormed several residential neighbourhoods in the nearby city of Hama, activists claimed. There was no immediate information on casualties in the latest assaults.
The United Nations human rights chief, Navi Pillay, told the General Assembly this week that more than 5400 people were killed last year alone, and that the number of dead and injured continued to rise daily in Syria.
Diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis have reached a standstill after Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution aimed at ending Syria's bloodshed earlier this month.