Syrian activists meet to chart way out of crisis

Meeting appears to have authorities' blessing; organizers: it will discuss path to democracy; opponents say it legitimizes Assad crackdown.

Syrians at anti-Assad protest in Deir al-Zour_311 reuters  (photo credit: Ho New / Reuters)
Syrians at anti-Assad protest in Deir al-Zour_311 reuters
(photo credit: Ho New / Reuters)
AMMAN - Some of Syria's most prominent intellectuals will meet in Damascus on Monday to seek a way out of the country's crisis, but anti-government activists said the meeting could give political cover to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The planned meeting at a Damascus hotel includes noted critics of Assad who are respected in opposition circles, as well as some people known as supporters of Assad. The gathering appears to have approval from the government.
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Assad has sent troops to crush protests across the country, while promising a national dialogue in an effort to contain an uprising for political freedoms which have posed the gravest threat to 41 years of family rule begun under his father.
Rights group say 1,300 civilians have died in the three-month uprising. The government says 250 security force members have died, and blames armed militants for provoking unrest.
Rights groups said security forces shot dead five civilians on Saturday, two at funerals which turned into protests and three during a campaign of arrests in Damascus and Quseir town near the Lebanese border. That followed mass protests on Friday, when activists said security forces killed at least 15 people.
Organizers of Monday's conference described it as a platform for independent figures searching for a way out of the violence.
"There is no one officially from the regime or from the opposition, but the intelligentsia have a duty to meet and call for an end to military repression, release of political prisoners and establishment of political freedoms," opposition figure Aref Dalila told Reuters by telephone from Damascus.
"Most participants are demanding in total seriousness a move to a democratic system," said Dalila, a leading economist who was jailed for eight years after criticizing a telecoms contract awarded to a cousin of Assad.
Writer Louay Hussein, another high-profile opposition activist attending the meeting, said the aim was "to discuss the situation that is threatening the country and move in a safe and peaceful way into a democratic and civic state that achieves equality and justice for all citizens without discrimination".
But an activists' group called the Coordination Union of the Syrian Revolt denounced the conference as an attempt to "bestow legitimacy" on the regime. In Istanbul, where 150 Syrian youth activists concluded a two day opposition conference on Sunday, delegates also criticized the planned meeting.
"We respect the past of people like Mr Dalila and Mr Hussein, but the fact the conference will go ahead while killings continue is a whitewash for the regime. Whatever they decide will have no bearing for protesters on the ground," said Iyad Qarqour, an activist elected to the executive committee.
Dalila and Hussein were both among a group of four activists who met an Assad adviser two months ago to discuss a national dialogue. After that meeting the four said no dialogue could be held while protesters continued to be killed and security forces were arresting and torturing Syrians in their thousands.
Assad's repression of the protests has triggered Western condemnation and a gradual escalation of US and European Union economic sanctions against Syrian leaders. Authorities in Damascus blame the violence on armed militant groups.
Despite strong rhetoric against Assad from Western leaders, there has been little suggestion they plan to go beyond economic sanctions to tougher action such as the military intervention launched against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.