Syrian opposition meet in Damascus

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The Independent Online

Nearly 200 critics of President Bashar Assad met today in the Syrian capital for the first time during the three-month uprising against his rule, in a government-sanctioned gathering some activists complained would be exploited to give legitimacy to the regime.

The session began with the Syrian national anthem, followed by a minute's silence in honour of Syrians 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 wouldn't include government representatives. They said their aim was to discuss strategies for a peaceful transition to democracy.

But 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's allowing space for dissent, rather than cracking down.

The opposition says some 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 daily basis," said opposition figure Walid al-Bunni. He told The Associated Press 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 told the AP 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.

But there were also some highly prominent participants, including lawyer Anwar al-Bunni and well-known writer Michel Kilo, both pro-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 autocratic 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 today's conference reflected tactical differences over approaches.

Whether the meeting might produce partners for President Assad's proposed "national dialogue" remains to be seen.

In a nationally televised speech on 20 June, 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, his foreign minister, Walid Moallem, called for regime opponents to enter into political talks. "Whoever wants to test our seriousness should come to the national dialogue to be a partner in shaping the future," he said.

But some prominent dissidents rejected the overtures, citing what they said was previous Assad talk of reform that produced no political change.

The regime disputes the opposition's death tolls, and says security forces have been the victims of "armed thugs" and foreign conspirators behind the unrest. Syria's military spokesman, Major General Riad Haddad, said yesterday that 300 soldiers and 47 police officers have been killed.

The European Union and the US, condemning the bloody crackdown, have imposed economic sanctions on Assad and other members of the Damascus leadership.

The Assad regime was condemned as well on Monday in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah, where some 200 Kurds and other members of the exiled Syrian opposition rallied to call for international military intervention in neighboring Syria, like the NATO intervention in Libya.

The Kurdish minority in Syria has long faced discrimination at the hands of the country's Arab leadership. Many Kurdish members of Syrian opposition groups live in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq.