Syria Allows Opposition to Meet in Damascus
By Anthony Shadid
The New York Times
June 27, 2011
BEIRUT — Scores of opposition figures met publicly for the first time in Damascus on Monday in a government-sanctioned gathering that underlined both the changes a three-month uprising has wrought in Syria and the challenges ahead in breaking a brutal cycle of protests and crackdowns that has left hundreds dead.
The meeting was in the works for weeks, and though government officials had signaled that they would not oppose it, those attending spent days trying to find a locale in the capital that would set aside fears of government retaliation and host them.
The meeting began with the national anthem and a moment of silence to honor Syrians killed in the revolt, which has amounted to one of the greatest and most sustained challenges to more than four decades of rule by the Assad family and the ruling Baath Party.
Some activists abroad have criticized the meeting as suggesting that the government was willing to engage in dialogue and tolerate dissent, even as its army and security forces press on with a relentless crackdown that has seen them deployed from one end of Syria to the other. Members of the Local Coordination Committees, which has sought to speak on behalf of youthful protesters, did not attend, and the group had yet to make a public statement on the meeting, though it has refused to engage in dialogue as the violence continues.
Still, the meeting drew some of the most prominent opposition figures in Damascus, men like Louay Hussein, Anwar al-Bunni and Michel Kilo, who have served time in prison for their outspokenness against one of the region’s most authoritarian governments. Mr. Hussein has said that no government representatives would be invited.
“It is important to have people meeting in Damascus for the opposition at this stage, but the question is whether they call for dialogue and, if they do, how do they carry out dialogue when the army and the security forces are still in the streets and are still carrying out with the crackdown?” asked Wissam Tarif, a human rights advocate.
So far, Mr. Hussein and others have said they will not enter into dialogue with the government as long as its forces persist in firing on peaceful protesters. But even they acknowledge that the crisis seems to be taking a dangerous turn, as the government grows more isolated, elements of an armed insurgency emerge and the economy staggers.
In a speech last week, President Bashar al-Assad offered what he described as a national dialogue that could ostensibly lead to changes in a constitution that enshrines power in the Baath Party, the Assad family’s instrument of rule for 41 years.
Protesters took to the streets the same day and, on Friday, denounced both the call for a dialogue and Mr. Assad’s comparison of conspiracies against the country to germs.
Mr. Assad suggested that the government would choose 100 or so people with whom it would negotiate. But some diplomats have looked to Monday’s meeting as offering at least the potential for a more unified opposition that could deal with the government.
“Every step that helps bring together an opposition is a positive step,” said Burhan Ghalioun, a Syrian scholar and director of the Center for Contemporary Oriental Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. “We need a unified opposition that can be engaged in a political battle with the regime to force to transfer the country into a democratic civil state.”