Syria’s opposition boycotts government talks

US expert: Dialogue with Assad is an "obscene fantasy."

Syria protest flag 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syria protest flag 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Syria’s main opposition groups boycotted talks with the government on Sunday, saying they would not negotiate until President Bashar Assad stops the violent suppression of protests and frees thousands of political prisoners.
Meanwhile, a Human Rights Watch report based on interviews with defecting soldiers found that troops have been ordered to disperse unarmed protesters with a “shoot to kill” policy that has included women and children.
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Analysts dismissed the regime-sponsored event as a farce.
“It’s the regime talking to itself, essentially,” said Tony Badran, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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“They reached out to certain veteran opposition figures to see if they can get them to show up – but only in a ‘personal capacity’ without acknowledging the opposition per se.
“I think the idea of a ‘dialogue’ with Assad is a rather obscene fantasy,” Badran said in an e-mail interview from Washington. “The protest movement has rejected it – its demand is clear: toppling the regime. The question is whether relevant countries – specifically Turkey – will buy into Assad’s charade to give him more time. The same goes for the US. Will it continue in its public position of urging ‘real dialogue’ or will it finally come to the realization that Assad has zero credibility or legitimacy?” Rights groups say more than 1,300 civilians have been killed and 12,000 people have been arrested since the start of demonstrations demanding more freedom began in March.
Even many of the moderate intellectuals, independent parliamentarians and minor opposition figures who did attend the conference aimed at setting the framework for national dialogue were scathing in their criticism of the government crackdown.
“How can I go to the conference when friends of mine are still in prison? People who should be with us in the conference are in prison,” said prominent opposition figure Fayez Sara. “They did not prepare the background for dialogue. The killings, crackdown and arrests did not stop, so why should we go,” said Sara, who was arrested during the uprising.
Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa told participants there is “no alternative” to dialogue. The only alternative, he said, “is bloodshed, economic bleeding and self destruction.”
Live on Syrian television, Sharaa told participants, “National dialogue should continue, and on all levels... in order to turn the page on the past and open a new page in the history of Syria.”
Some of those at the meeting called for an immediate abolition of Article Eight of the constitution, which puts the Ba’ath Party at the center of Syrian politics and society.
Syrian authorities question the motives of some of the opposition and believe they are seeking help from the West to topple Assad while most opposition groups question the seriousness of the authorities’ call for dialogue.
Also, Sunday, Syria summoned the ambassadors of the US and France to object to their visit of Hama without clearance from the authorities last week, the state news agency SANA said.
It quoted the Syrian Foreign Ministry as saying the visit of US Ambassador Robert Ford and France’s Ambassador Eric Chevallier to Hama was “clear evidence of the American and French intervention in Syria’s internal affairs and confirms that there is external support for [protests].”
The US State Department said Ford toured Hama to show solidarity with residents facing a security crackdown after weeks of escalating protests against Assad, but rejected Syria’s accusations that he sought to incite protests.
France said late Sunday that it had summoned the Syrian ambassador in Paris after violent demonstrations took place outside its diplomatic residences in Aleppo and Damascus the day before.
“We hold the Syrian authorities responsible for the security of our diplomatic staff and buildings,” the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
It said French flags had been burnt, projectiles had been thrown into the residences and vehicles outside had been destroyed, and that the incidents happened without security forces doing anything to prevent them.
The Human Rights Watch report released Saturday found Syrian commanders ordered security forces to “shoot to kill,” often times at unarmed protesters including women and children. The report – based on interviews with 12 defecting soldiers and members of the security forces – also revealed the widespread use of mass arbitrary arrests of civilians.
All the interviewees told the rights group that their superiors had told them that they were fighting infiltrators, Salafi extremists and terrorists, but were surprised to encounter unarmed protesters instead. One soldier said he had witnessed an officer kill two soldiers in Deraa for disobeying orders.
“The testimony of these defectors provides further evidence that the killing of protesters was no accident but a result of a deliberate policy by senior figures in Syria to use deadly force to disperse protesters,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Syrian soldiers and officials should know that they too have not just a right but a duty to refuse such unlawful orders, and that those who deliberately kill or injure peaceful protesters will be subject to prosecution.”
The Syrian regime did not comment on the allegations.
“Maybe some of the grizzlier details were new,” Badran said, “but essentially, anyone looking at the videos coming out from Syria, or the testimonies of those who had the misfortune of being captured and jailed by the authorities, pretty much knew this.”
Reuters contributed to this report.