BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian forces attacked the city of Daraa on Thursday, carrying out arrests and shooting randomly in the city where the uprising against President Bashar Assad erupted 11 months ago, activists said.
The push into Daraa follows sieges on the rebellious cities of Homs and Hama and appears to be part of an effort by the regime to extinguish major pockets of dissent.
On Wednesday, Assad ordered a Feb. 26 referendum on a new constitution that would create a multiparty system in Syria, which has been ruled by the same family dynasty for 40 years.
Such a change would have been unheard of a year ago, and Assad's regime is touting the new constitution as the centerpiece of reforms aimed at calming Syria's upheaval.
But after almost a year of bloodshed, with well over 5,000 dead in the regime's crackdown on protesters and rebels, Assad's opponents say the referendum and other promises of reform are not enough and that the country's strongman must go.
The U.S. dismissed the referendum move as an empty gesture.
Assad "knows what he needs to do if he really cares about his people," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington on Wednesday. "The violence just needs to come to an end, and he needs to get out of the way so we can have a democratic transition."
Assad's call for a referendum also raises the question of how a nationwide vote could be held at a time when many areas see daily battles between Syrian troops and rebel soldiers.
Russia, a top Syrian ally, has presented Assad's reform promises as an alternative way to resolve Syria's bloodshed. Earlier this month, Moscow and Beijing vetoed a Western- and Arab-backed resolution at the U.N. Security Council aimed at pressuring Assad to step down.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun will be in Syria on Friday and Saturday for talks on how to end the violence, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said Thursday. Zhai met a Syrian opposition delegation in Beijing last week.
"I believe the message of this visit is that China hopes for a peaceful and proper resolution of the Syrian situation, and that the Chinese side will play a constructive role in the mediation," Liu said.
On Thursday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported raids and shooting by Syrian troops in Daraa, along with renewed shelling in the rebellious neighborhood of Baba Amr in Homs.
Homs has seen one of the deadliest assaults of the crackdown that activists say has killed hundreds in the past two weeks, aimed at crushing a city that has been a stronghold of dissent.