Syria allows opposition leaders to meet publicly in Damascus

Speakers insist on Assad giving up total control

Shawki Baghdadi, Munther Khaddam, and Hanan Laham (left to right) led a session of opposition leaders yesterday. Shawki Baghdadi, Munther Khaddam, and Hanan Laham (left to right) led a session of opposition leaders yesterday. (Khaled Al-Hariri/ Reuters)
By Anthony Shadid
New York Times / June 28, 2011

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BEIRUT — Scores of opposition figures met publicly in Damascus yesterday for the first time since Syria’s antigovernment uprising began, with the officially sanctioned gathering underlining changes the rebellion has wrought as well as 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 equated 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 longstanding divides, whether the government is willing to engage it in real dialogue, and whether it can eventually pose an alternative to President Bashar Assad’s leadership.

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

One of the organizers, Louay Hussein, 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.’’

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.

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.

The Local Coordination Committees, a group that has sought to speak on behalf of youthful protesters, was not in attendance, and has yet to make a public statement on the meeting itself, though it has refused dialogue as the violence continues.

“They contacted me but I refused the invitation as long as the atmosphere is not right,’’ said Hassan Abdel-Azim, a veteran party leader and opposition figure in Syria. “What kind of dialogue can you have in the midst of a security crackdown?’’

Even some organizers — among them Aref Dalila, an economist, and Hajj Yassin Hajj Saleh, a longtime activist — decided at the last minute not to participate in the gathering.

“Unfortunately, what I have seen on television is a silly scene,’’ Saleh said by phone. “That’s my impression, so I guess I made the right decision.’’

But the meeting still drew some of the most prominent opposition figures in Damascus, men like 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.

Hussein said no government representatives would be invited, though dozens of security men were seen circulating outside the hall.

In the meeting, convened at the Semiramis Hotel, dissidents went to lengths not to claim to speak for the protesters, whose demands have grown in intensity in past weeks.

“We are meeting here today to put a plan forward to solve the current crisis,’’ said Fayez Sara, an opposition activist. “We are not saying we are representing protesters. We are not angry at those who criticized us for holding this meeting.’’

So far, Hussein and others have said they will not enter into dialogue with the government as long as its forces persist on 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.

“There are two ways forward — the first is a clear and nonnegotiable move toward a peaceful transition to democracy, which would rescue our country and our people,’’ Munzer Khaddam, another opposition activist, told the meeting. “The alternative is a road that leads into the unknown and which will destroy everyone.’’

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