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Middle East
Syrian opposition seeks 'peaceful transition'
Government critics meeting in Damascus call for democracy while government vows to invite "all factions" to a dialogue.
Last Modified: 28 Jun 2011 05:55

Syrian opposition figures have declared support for the "peaceful uprising" in the country, calling for a peaceful transition to democracy.

About 160 critics of the regime met in the capital, Damascus, on Monday, at a conference approved by the government.

In a document they called a "pledge," 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 called for an immediate end to the security crackdown, the right to demonstrate peacefully, the
release of political prisoners, freedom of the press, the safe return of refugees and moves to prevent foreign intervention.

Monther Khaddam, an academic from the coastal city of Latakia, said intellectuals were "behind street demands until the end".

The conference included outspoken opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, including writer Michel Kilo, who spent three years as a political prisoner.

"The solution to this crisis has to address its root causes. This regime must be toppled and replaced with a democratic system," he said.

'National dialogue'

Syria is essentially a one-party state, ruled by the Baath Party since 1963. 

But under pressure from mass protests sweeping the country for months, Assad has pledged political reforms, including a "national dialogue".

Spotlight
In-depth coverage of escalating violence across Syria

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 Assad's call for dialogue as insufficient, saying they will not take part unless authorities end the crackdown on protesters.

"The regime is putting forward the idea of dialogue to buy time and absorb popular rage... [It] will not find takers unless the military option ends, all political prisoners are released and the right of peaceful protest is acknowledged without restrictions," a statement by a coalition of centrist, leftist and Kurdish politicians said.

Rights groups say more than 1,300 civilians have been killed in demonstrations and 12,000 others arrested since the start of the uprising in mid-March. Authorities say more than 250 soldiers and police have died in clashes provoked by "militant groups".

'Publicity stunt'

Monday's opposition gathering was hailed by the government as an example of reforms promised by the president, but some activists dismissed it as a "publicity stunt" because of the absence of groups such as the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Thousands of people rallied in Homs in support of President Assad as the opposition met [AFP]

Some critics also said the meeting, attended only by individuals independent of any party affiliation, was giving legitimacy to the regime while it continues to clamp down on dissent.

"This meeting will be exploited as a cover-up for the arrests, brutal killings and torture that is taking place on a daily basis,'' opposition figure Walid al-Bunni, who was not participating in the conference, said.

Al-Bunni told The Associated Press news agency that he was not invited to the meeting because authorities had "vetoed" some names.

"We would have been happier if the organisers of the conference were free to invite whomever they wanted ... as it is, this is not an opposition conference,'' said.

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

"It's the first meeting of this kind in many decades", spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

A pro-Assad demonstration was held outside the hotel where the conference was held and a similar rally was held in the city of Homs.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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