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Syria's vote on constitution: Chance for democracy or trick by Assad?

As dozens more Syrians die in a government crackdown, a few make it over the border to neighboring Turkey. NBC Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel reports.

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Syrians began voting Sunday on a new constitution that's meant by President Bashar Assad's regime to placate critics but seen by the opposition as a ploy to divert attention from a brutal government crackdown in which thousands have been killed.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time (9 p.m. ET), Al Jazeera reported.

Syria has defied international calls to halt attacks on rebel enclaves and at least 89 people were killed nationwide on the eve of the referendum.

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.

The new charter would create a multiparty system in Syria, which has been ruled by the same family dynasty since Assad's father Hafez seized power in a coup in 1963. Such change was unthinkable a year ago.

After 11 months of bloodshed, however, Assad's opponents say the referendum and other promises of reform are not enough and have called for a boycott of the vote.

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.

President Barack Obama said Friday of Assad's rule: "It is time for that regime to move on."

Syrian rebels have tried to fight back, but they are losing the battle after being outnumbered and outgunned. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

On Saturday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Assad's crackdown belied promised reforms.

"That kind of logic unfortunately renders any kind of reform meaningless," he said. "To fight on the one hand with your people and then to claim that there is reform is contradictory."

Still, Assad enjoys substantial support in many parts of the country. Some have benefited from his policies, others fear chaos or sectarian civil war if he falls.

The insular nature of the regime makes the extent and character of that support hard to measure, and the regime has prevented most media from operating freely in the country during the uprising.

Syrian activists: The world has abandoned us

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."

Elewi said he planned to vote yes, and dismissed opposition calls to boycott the vote.

"The country is going forward with them or without them," he said.

Posters around town urged people to vote. "Don't turn your back on voting," one said.

Another — showing the red, black and white Syrian flag — touted new constitution. "Syria's constitution: Freedom of belief," it said, referring to clauses protecting religious minorities.

Syrian Interior Minster Lt. Gen. Mohammed al-Shaar said more than 14,000 voting centers have been set up for more than 14 million eligible voters across the country.

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 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?" said Abu Mohammed Ibrahim from the embattled neighborhood of Baba Amr via Skype. "They are hitting us with all types of weapons. What constitution? What referendum?"

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