After nearly two straight weeks of deadly military assault on the Syrian city of Homs, President Bashar al-Assad has finally set a date for a national referendum.

The referendum, to be held on Feburary 26, will vote on constitutional changes that will allow a president to be elected for two seven-year terms and allow more than one political party. For 50 years only the ruling Baath party has been allowed in Syria. The elected president must be Muslim and male. Assad said the referendum would bring a “new era” and a “brilliant future for next generations”.

Jay Carney, a White House Spokesperson, dismissed Assad’s claims of a referendum bringing change to the change: “it’s actually quite laughable — it makes a mockery of the Syrian revolution.

“Promises of reforms have usually been followed by an increase in brutality and have never been delivered upon by this regime since the beginning of peaceful demonstrations in Syria.”

However, as The New York Times reports — based on Syrian televison news — “the constitution forbids the creation of parties based on religion, profession or regional interests — apparently forestalling the legalization of the Muslim Brotherhood or Kurdish parties in the northwest of the country.”

The bombardment of Homs has increased in recent days, with citizens desperately trying to escape the town, report Neil MacFarquhar and Alan Cowell.

“where a fuel pipeline fire blazed on Wednesday as residents recounted days of deprivation, with rockets and tank shells exploding around them as they sought to escape by bribing government soldiers during lulls in the fighting. A young woman who fled the city, Syria’s third-largest, for Beirut, for instance, spoke on Tuesday of the hellish experience that she and others had endured, trapped in their dwellings without heat while desperately awaiting breaks in the military offensive to forage for food or to try to flee.”

Now the city of Hama is also being targeted, with residential neighbourhoods being attacked, reports Reuters:

“Tanks deployed near the citadel of Hama were shelling the neighbourhoods of Faraya, Olailat, Bashoura and al-Hamidiya, and troops were advancing from the airport, opposition sources said.

An activist called Amer, speaking briefly by satellite phone, said that “landlines and mobile phone networks have been cut in the whole of Hama”, a Sunni city notorious for the massacre of some 10,000 people when the president’s father, Hafez, sent in troops to crush an uprising there in 1982.”

With many  journalists banned in Syria, opposition activists are shooting video and reporting for foreign media outlets. A protester from Hama made a video for Al Jazeera of his experience:

Is this a liberation or a catastrophe for Syria? asks former CIA station chief Robert Grenier at Al Jazeera:

“The Assad regime shows every sign of fighting to the end, but the nature of that end cannot be in doubt. There is every reasonable expectation that the final images of Bashar will be like those of Ceausescu, or of Najibullah, or of Gaddafi. Inevitability, however, does not equate with ease, and the path to the Assad family’s ultimate destruction will surely be one of unrelieved violence and waste.

For all that we might have wished to see a united, non-sectarian opposition to the bloody ruling clique in Damascus, and for all that some outside powers have tried to condition support for the opposition Syrian National Council on their ability to incorporate minorities, the time for preventing all-out sectarian warfare appears to have passed.”

The best way for the West to help protect Syrian civilians is economic sanctions, argues former British defence secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind in The Telegraph:

“There should now be a two-pronged effort to defeat Assad, led by the Arab League and Turkey with support from the US and Europe. Part of that strategy should be to direct help to the Syrian resistance. Britain and the West should provide communications equipment, body armour, logistical support and intelligence as well as greater diplomatic and political assistance.

The key, however, needs to be economic. The Syrian economy is deteriorating badly. The tourism industry has collapsed. The Syrian government has admitted that oil sanctions have already lost it more than $2 billion. Its currency is close to being in free fall. What is needed now is a total economic embargo on Syria, imposed and co-ordinated by the Arab League, Turkey, the US and the EU.”

Human rights groups say 6,000 Syrians have been killed since the uprising began nearly a year ago.