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Syrian Opposition Leaders Gather In Damascus

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Syrian Opposition Leaders Gather In Damascus

Middle East

Syrian Opposition Leaders Gather In Damascus

Syrian Opposition Leaders Gather In Damascus

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Members of the Syrian opposition gather for an unprecedented meeting in Damascus. Many of these people have spent years in prison for their opposition to the Assad regime, yet they have been emboldened by President Bashar Assad's call for national dialogue. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Deborah Amos for more.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

More than 150 critics of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, met today at a Damascus hotel with one goal in mind: To resolve the crisis in Syria. The meeting was the first of its kind inside the country after more than three months of unrest and another violent weekend. Assad has called for a national dialogue in July, but it's not clear if he can find a partner among these dissidents.

NPR's Deborah Amos is one of the few Western journalists allowed to report in Syria. She joins us from Damascus.

And, Deb, up to this point, the government has shown zero tolerance for dissent. They've cracked down violently on protesters. So how do you explain that so many dissidents not only met inside Syria, but did so with the government's blessing?

DEBORAH AMOS: Well, this is unprecedented. For 40 years, Syria has been ruled by one party and one family. Opposition parties are illegal here and critics go to jail. So the fact that dissidents are able to meet in the heart of the capital, and call for change in the political system, is the result of the protest movement.

NPR is in Syria with a small group of international journalists, and even our government escorts - the people who go with us to all of our interviews - said, you can go to that meeting without us, if you'd like. We just don't want to interfere.

BLOCK: Hmm. Well, who was there at that meeting?

AMOS: Michel Kilo, he spent time in jail for defying the government; lawyer Anwar Bunni, he was just released from a five-year jail sentence. I met one man who said he was a psychiatrist, and he joined a street protest, and he was arrested. He spent a week in jail. He met some of the young activists, so he decided to join this group.

They talked all day about how to transition Syria to a democracy, how to end the crisis. This crisis has become dangerous. Syria is more isolated than ever. The economy is tanking. There is the emergence of armed groups. And the security services are still shooting and arresting protesters who call for change.

BLOCK: And, Deb, some of the organizers of those protests objected to any meeting that was sanctioned by the government. They said it was basically a smoke screen to divert attention from the crackdown. Does that signal a real split in the opposition?

AMOS: Yes. And some prominent activists actually stayed away. At the last minute, they didn't show up. There was a split in the Bunni family. Anwar Bunni, the lawyer I just talked about, he joined. His brother, Walid Bunni, stayed away because what he said, it allowed President Assad to show the world he's a reformer by permitting this meeting without giving up one ounce of power.

The young activists who organized the street demonstrations, they stayed away. Some of the political social media pages that track the protest movement condemned the meeting. Hocus-Pocus, Assad Style was their headline today. And some suggested that it was the government's strategy all along, to allow this first ever above-ground meeting that would split the opposition, and that it has or at least it's defined the splits.

BLOCK: We mentioned that President Assad proposed a national dialogue as a way out of the crisis. And the government news agency in Syria announced today that the first such dialogue will take place on July 10th. Who will those talks be with?

AMOS: This official meeting in two weeks time is a bit of a preparatory meeting. It's run by the vice president. But it was interesting that it was announced today.

Now, for the president to carry out this national dialogue, he has to have credible partners. So it's pretty high stakes here to get Syria's well-known dissidents to sit at the table. But they know that they are sitting in a Damascus hotel, in the light of day, because of the power of the protest movement.

So there are Syrians who have faced bullets on the streets. For them, to sip bottled water and talk about democracy today. So there's a great pressure not to betray what the revolution is about and not sit down with this government until the violence stops.

BLOCK: OK. Thank you, Deb.

AMOS: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Deborah Amos. She's one of the few Western journalists who's been allowed into Syria to report. She spoke with us from Damascus.

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