THE centre of Damascus, the Syrian capital, may be quiet but in dense suburbs where most of its 3m inhabitants live, chanting, hand-clapping marches burst out of dozens of local mosques. “The people demand the execution of the president,” they shout. “With our blood and spirit we sacrifice for Homs.”
The reference is to Syria’s third-largest city, large tracts of which remain in the hands of anti-government rebels despite two weeks of relentless pummeling by rockets and artillery that has left at least 300 dead. Shows of frequently indiscriminate firepower have succeeded in containing opposition and in some cases crushing it. Zabadani, a town of 100,000 near the Lebanese border held by rebels for nearly a month, capitulated to government forces on February 11th. Scores of other unruly towns and cities have been punished, too.
The brutal government offensive has encouraged President Bashar Assad to proffer the latest in a series of belated carrots. Receiving the draft of a new constitution from a panel he appointed in October, he declared that it would be put to a referendum on February 26th. The text enshrines such things as civic freedoms, multi-party elections and a limit of two seven-year terms for presidents.
The combination of ruthless repression and reform appears to be Mr Assad’s plan for resolving the trouble that has roiled his country for 11 months. It is also designed to reassure Russia which, along with China, has twice wielded its veto at the UN Security Council to fend of censure of Syria.
Yet it is hard to see how, under Syria’s lawless conditions, a referendum could be carried out. It is even harder to see how it would have any credibility.
Although Mr Assad’s forces still dominate the battleground inside Syria, his loss of moral stature is constantly compounded by diplomatic setbacks. His enemies have tabled a condemnation at the UN General Assembly. They have also agreed to meet in Tunisia on February 24th to hash out a further round of punitive measures. The Arab League, from which Syria is already suspended, has drafted a resolution demanding those of its 22 members who have not already done so to sever ties with Syria and impose economic sanctions, and calling for the establishment of a joint peacekeeping force with the UN. Neighbouring Turkey, which has already slapped formal sanctions on Syria, and which hosts refugees and opposition activists, is being pressed to consider setting up safe havens on the Syrian side of its frontier.
At the same time, Mr Assad’s few remaining friends are facing pressure too. Despite acting tough in the face of near-global annoyance, Russia is far from insensitive to outside opinion. Chinese diplomats have begun to distance themselves from the Syrian regime. Iran, a stalwart ally, is increasingly embroiled in its own troubles. Its war of words with the West, and particularly Israel, over its nuclear ambitions, appears to have escalated into a shadowy war of tit-for-tat assassinations. Israel says Iran is responsible for bombs targeting Israeli diplomats in Georgia and India, and a planned attack in Thailand, evidently intended to avenge the serial murders of Iranian nuclear scientists.