Syrian authorities have set a date for a “national dialogue” with goverment opponents beginning on 10 July, but activists dismissed the prospect as pointless while a crackdown continues.
The move came as scores of opposition members met in Damascus, apparently with the government’s sanction, for the first such summit in Syria for decades.
Around 150 intellectuals and opposition figures gathered at the Semiramis hotel. Proceedings opened with the national anthem and an homage to those who have died in the three-month uprising across the country in an effort to end more than 40 years of rule by the Assad family.
TV channels close to the government aired footage of pro-Assad rallies, waving flags and pictures of the president, outside the hotel. But many opponents, particularly those based abroad, criticised the gathering for going ahead while the government attacks its opponents, at least 1,500 of whom have been killed, according to activists.
They also expressed concerns that the conference lent legitimancy to the government. Many young protesters in Syria, who make up the local co-ordination committees, refused to attend. “It is people out of touch jostling for position,” said one female intellectual who stayed away. “We need to come up with solid alternatives.” Those in attendance did not accept the criticism. “It doesn’t matter how the government portrays it. We have to get together to talk,” said activist Maan Abdul Salam beforehand.
The call for a national dialogue came after President Bashar al-Assad met two visiting westerners, British Conservative MP Brooks Newmark and US congressman Dennis Kucinich, the first such meetings since the uprising began.
It was unclear what Newmark’s motivation was. The MP for Braintree in Essex was elected to parliament in 2005, and is a senior government whip, having been foreign affairs whip in 2009-10. The Foreign Office released a statement that he had travelled to Syria without government backing, but added that he had reiterated Britain’s stance on Syria. Asked by CNN, Kucinich declined to discuss what was said at his three-hour meeting on Sunday.
The state-run Syrian Arab News agency reported Kucinich and Newmark “expressed keenness on Syria’s security and stability as an essential pillar in the region”. Reaction to the visits and the opposition summit was cautious, with observers suggesting neither was a breakthrough while security forces continued a sustained crackdown.
The 10 July summit has also been widely dismissed by the nascent opposition, who refuse to talk until the army is back in barracks. In a speech last Monday, Assad said some 100 people would be chosen, but the body charged with the dialogue, under vice-president Farouk Sharaa, suggested all figures were invited to attend.
“What sort of dialogue is it, when the government chooses those it will talk to?” said Fawaz Tello, a signatory of the Damascus Declaration; the declaration signed by 250 oppositionists in 2005 which called the regime “authoritarian”, with the result that 12 were given 2½-year jail terms in 2008.
Meanwhile, Rami Makhlouf, the tycoon cousin of Assad who said he was devoting his businesses to charity, is rumoured to have fled to Dubai last week, where he is believed to own property; this could not be verified. “Makhlouf is the easiest person to seem to be sacrificing, and this could be done simply by telling him to move abroad,” said an analyst in the capital.
Meanwhile activists from the local committees said more than 300 students of Aleppo University had been referred for disciplinary action following campus protests, and that gunmen opened fire on protesters in Homs.
While the regime enjoys some support, its propaganda has eroded its credibility. During a visit by Sky News, one of few news outlets permitted to enter, under severe restrictions, to a town close to Damascus, a man pushed through Assad supporters to say: “This is just a play put on for you.” Activists say he was later detained.