Nearly 200 critics of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met yesterday in Damascus for the first time during the three-month uprising against his rule, in a government-sanctioned gathering some activists said would be exploited to give legitimacy to the regime.
The session began with the Syrian national anthem, followed by a minute’s silence in honor of people who have been killed in the protests.
Participants, some of them prominent opposition figures long persecuted by the regime, said that though the meeting was approved by authorities, it would not include government representatives. They said their aim was to discuss strategies for a peaceful transition to democracy.
However, some opposition figures and activists, both inside Syria and abroad, dismissed the meeting of 190 critics as an opportunity for the government to convey a false impression it is allowing space for dissent, rather than cracking down.
The opposition says about 1,400 people have been killed — most of them unarmed protesters — during the government crackdown on months of street protests.
“This meeting will be exploited as a cover-up for the arrests, brutal killings and torture that is taking place on a daily basis,” opposition figure Walid al-Bunni said.
He said he was not invited to the conference because authorities had “vetoed” some names.
“We would have been happier if the organizers of the conference were free to invite whomever they wanted. As it is, this is not an opposition conference,” he said from Damascus.
An activists’ group, the Coordination Union of the Syrian Revolt, also denounced the conference, calling it a “cheap ploy” that the government wants to exploit.
However, there were also some highly prominent participants, including lawyer Anwar al-Bunni and well-known writer Michel Kilo, both democracy activists who spent years as political prisoners. Another participant, writer and activist Louay Hussein, said Syrian authorities were informed of the meeting and had not blocked it. There would be no government representation, he said.
The divisions highlighted the fractured nature of the Syrian opposition, which has long been silenced, imprisoned or exiled by the regime in Damascus. Opposition meetings so far have been held abroad by exiles living in the West or elsewhere in the Middle East and who don’t have significant followings inside the country.
Those inside Syria say change must come from within, but the split over yesterday’s conference reflected tactical differences over approaches.
Whether the meeting might produce partners for Assad’s proposed “national dialogue” remains to be seen.
In a nationally televised speech on Monday last week, Assad said he was forming a committee to study constitutional amendments, including one that would open the way to political parties other than the ruling Baath Party. He said a package of reforms was expected no later than the end of the year.
Two days later, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem called for regime opponents to enter into political talks.
However, some prominent dissidents rejected the overtures, citing what they said was previous Assad talk of reform that produced no political change.