Thursday, 30 June 2011

Syria: Dissidents & Regime

DAMASCUS- Syrian dissidents meeting in Damascus on Monday pledged to press ahead with a "peaceful uprising for freedom" until the creation of a "democratic state."
Nearly 200 critics of Syria`s regime met yesterday in the Syrian cap­ital for the first time during the three-month uprising against his rule.

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. The officially sanctioned gathering underlined the changes the rebellion has wrought in Syria as well as the challenges ahead in breaking a cycle of protests and crackdowns that have left hundreds dead.
The gathering was remarkable foremost for its rarity - a public show of dissent in a country that has long conflated opposition with treason. But it also cut across some of the most pressing questions in Syria today:

Whether a venerable but weak opposition can bridge its long-standing divides, whether the government is willing to engage it in real dialogue and whether it can eventually pose an alternative to President Bashar al-Assad's leadership?

The meeting offered no answers, but in speech after speech, participants insisted the 3-month-old revolt could end only with Assad's surrender of absolute power.
Participants 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.

According to the organizers, the meeting discussed the current situation in Syria and means of finding a way out of the crisis. Louay Hussein, one of the organizers, said the meeting of 190 opposition leaders, unprecedented in its size, would explore a vision for "ending tyranny and ensuring a peaceful and safe transition to a desired state, one of freedom, democracy and equality."

In a document dubbed ''Ahd (Pledge)", the participants at the meeting pledged to remain part of the peaceful uprising of the Syrian people for the sake of freedom, democracy and plurality as to lay the basis for a civil and democratic state in a peaceful and safe way. They vowed to remain "part of Syria's peaceful uprising for freedom and democracy and pluralism to establish a democratic state through peaceful means."

They also voiced rejection of the resort to the security solution to solve the political crisis, and to any discourse or behavior that divides the Syrians along sectarian, confessional or racial lines. They said they rejected "resorting to security measures to solve the deep structural crisis that Syria is suffering," and condemned "any discourse or behavior that divides Syrians on the basis of race or religion."

They also voiced rejection of calls for foreign interference in Syria's affairs, calling for giving priority to the interests of the homeland and citizens. They said "any foreign intervention in Syria's affairs" and urged "the nation's interests and the freedom of citizens" be put "above any other interest" for the sake of a "free, democratic and secure" Syria.

Some activists abroad have criticized the gathering 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 deployed them from one end of Syria to the other. 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 it to transfer the country into a democratic civil state."

Some activists complained would be exploited to give legitimacy to the regime, while other 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 meeting was in the works for weeks, and though government officials had signaled that they would not oppose it, the leaders themselves spent days trying to find a locale in the capital that would set aside fears of government retaliation and host them. In the end, Syrian state television, long a tool of propaganda, covered the meeting at the Semiramis Hotel.

A pro-Assad demonstration was held outside the hotel where the conference was held.

The state news agency said on Monday that the government would begin talks with the opposition on July 10 to set the framework for the dialogue, with "all factions, intellectual personalities, politicians" invited.

The meeting would open a debate on the constitution, "especially clause 8" which stipulates that the Baath Party is the leader of both the Syrian state and society, it said.

Many opposition figures have rejected President al-Assad's call for dialogue as insufficient, saying they will not take part unless authorities end the crackdown on protesters.

In Washington, the US State Department hailed this "first meeting of opposition figures in Syria" as "significant," even if there are no "outcomes yet."

"This is a significant event," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
"It's the first meeting of this kind in many decades. About 160 people are attending it. We don't have any outcomes yet but it is the first meeting of opposition figures in Syria," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
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