Middle East

Syrian dissidents show unity at rare conference

A view shows Syrian opposition dissidents during a deliberative meeting held in Damascus, 27 June 2011
Image caption Organisers did not invite opposition groups, saying they wanted "independent voices"

The slogan of today's opposition conference was: "Syria for all: Towards a democratic and civil country".

In a show of patriotism, the meeting of dissidents started with the national anthem. They then held a moment of silence to remember the hundreds who have lost their lives in the three-month uprising against the authoritarian rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

This was the first time in almost four decades that the 150 or so dissidents have met in public without fear of arrest.

The majority of today's participants belong to the older generation of dissidents. Many have spent time in Syria's jails - the price of speaking against the regime.

They clearly do not represent the young protesters out on the streets. But, they insist, they support the street.

"We are not terrorists or gangs, we are nationalist, and we are here to help our country out of the crisis," said Louai Hussein, one of the organisers, in his opening remarks.

The conference organisers did not include members of any opposition groups, saying they wanted a venue for independent voices.

'Legitimate demands'

"I am here to stand with the people against the violence and killing. We need to move to a free and democratic Syria," said Jawdat Said, a well-known Islamic scholar, a moderate, who came to support the decision to end the violence.

Image caption Supporters of President Assad held protests outside the meeting

The participants called for a democratic transition and an immediate end to the killing and violence.

Since the uprising began in March, more than 1,300 people have been killed, human rights groups say. The government says almost 400 security and military personnel have also died.

The authorities blame the killing on armed groups who they say are part of a foreign conspiracy aimed at destabilising Syria.

But the opposition reject this.

"No to conspiracy," said Michel Kilo, the most prominent dissident to participate. "These are peaceful protesters with legitimate demands."

The 71-year old writer and pro-democracy campaigner denounced the security crackdown against the protesters.

"Problems should be solved by addressing the root causes of the issue, and not the symptoms alone," he said.

"This regime cannot continue as such, there must be a move towards a democratic system," said Mr Kilo, who spent three years in jail for his outspoken anti-government remarks.

Inside the room, delegates appeared to be unanimous: People need change.

But on the street outside the conference room, a small pro-regime protest took place with people accusing the opposition figures of being traitors.

Growing protests

In recent days, tens of thousands have taken to the streets in support of the president.

And after midnight, they drive their cars through the streets of Damascus, playing loud music and chanting pro-Assad slogans.

Image caption Hundreds of Syrian families have fled into Turkey or Lebanon to escape the violence

The government has set 10 July as the date for a national dialogue. But it is as yet unclear who they will be talking to.

Opposition figures have refused to sit down with government officials while the repression, arrests and killings continue.

Even members affiliated to opposition movements - not included in today's conference - want to see an end to the violence before any government dialogue is held.

For now, they have publicly backed the independent dissidents and say efforts are under way to unify the various opposition groups inside Syria - including the protesters themselves.

"We didn't participate in this meeting, but we have no doubts about their patriotic views," said Hassan Abdulazim of the Socialist party.

A newly-formed national co-ordination committee was being set up that would be open to everyone, he added.

But the protesters do not want talks. They want change.

Protests are held in some part of Syria almost every day, and nationwide protests grow with every Friday.

The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), which represent the protesters in cities and towns across the country, also did not participate in the opposition conference.

They are resolute that the first goal of the revolution is regime change - stated clearly in their manifesto.

Like some other leading opposition activists who stayed away from today's conference, they fear that holding talks - while the violence and repression continue - could confer legitimacy on the regime.

The first step, their manifesto says, is to end the mandate of the president, who is "politically and legally responsible for the crimes committed by his regime against the Syrian people".

So while the opposition may be divided into three main blocs - the independents, the parties and the protesters - they have strikingly similar views.

The regime must go - and soon.

"Today you can change the constitution. Today you can recognise [opposition] parties. Today you can give the opposition their media platform," says Mr Kilo.

"A state that abides by law - this is what people are calling for."