Syria Insists It's Ready To Embrace Change

Syria's government says the country is ready to meet the demands of protesters. After four months of demonstrations and a brutal crackdown, a senior Syrian official says the government has gotten the message.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And let's turn now from economic to political reforms. The Syrian government insists it's ready to embrace a move towards democracy - reforms that meet the demands of protestors in the street. After months of demonstrations and cracking down hard on those protesters, a senior Syrian official says the government has gotten the message. This comes just after members of the opposition were able to meet for the first time in an officially-sanctioned gathering.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Damascus.

DEBORAH AMOS: A top advisor to Syria's president says protest organizers should be proud of what they've accomplished. That marks a change of tone for an embattled government after four months of trying to crush the movement by force.

Cabinet minister Bouthaina Shaaban says the president is now responding to the message from the streets.

Dr. BOUTHAINA SHAABAN (Minister of Expatriates): Now, we are saying, you are right, this is what needs to be done. Let us do it together.

AMOS: President Bashar al-Assad has proposed a national dialogue in two weeks time. He's invited the opposition to talk. Assad is under intense international and domestic pressure for rapid change. Shaaban says the protest movement has shown there are grievances that can no longer be ignored.

Dr. SHAABAN: These grievances should be addressed in order to make the system of Syria a better system.

AMOS: Then that suggests that the street protesters should stay on the streets. If they've gotten this much, they should stay and keep the pressure up.

Dr. SHAABAN: Well, they are staying on the street to achieve what is at the table now. But I think now they should move to the table.

AMOS: Dissidents have dismissed any talks with the government until the violence stops. But Shaaban disputes the charge that Syria's security forces are targeting peaceful protesters. It's armed gangs, Islamist militants, she says, who are responsible for all the bloodshed.

Dr. SHAABAN: When you have extremists killing people, what do you do? I mean the opposition should come and help. Over 500 officers and military and policeman had been killed and maimed. Who is killing those? I want an answer from the opposition.

AMOS: But an eyewitness to events in one Syrian town tells a different story. A resident of Homs, north of Damascus, says he watched security police fire directly into a peaceful protest. He saw bodies fall in the streets as the crowds scattered.

(Soundbite of singing, Syrian National Anthem, and applause)

AMOS: This opposition meeting, in the heart of Damascus, opened with the national anthem and a moment of silence for Syrians killed in the past four months - civilians and military.

(Soundbite of conversations)

AMOS: The opposition, at least those inside the country, was allowed to meet in the open for the first time, a sign that the protest movement had won at least this concession.

Jallal Noufal, a psychiatrist and regime critic, said he came to make a statement of what the opposition wants.

Dr. JALLAL NOUFAL (Psychiatrist and protester): To go to a democratic and civil state, to put an end for the dictatorships in Syria.

AMOS: Noufal says he's took part in a protest. He marched in central Damascus. And when he sang the national anthem with others on the street, that got him jailed for a week.

Dr. NOUFAL: We try to be free - a free state.

AMOS: Will you talk to the government?

Dr. NOUFAL: No, not to the government.

AMOS: No talks with this government. It's a message repeated by the young social media organizers on Facebook sites and Twitter.

But Buthaina Shaaban maintains that dialogue is the only way out.

Dr. SHAABAN: If the protesters are very proud, and they have every right to be proud of what they have done until now, I think it is a historic moment for them to sit at the table and reap the fruits of what they have been trying to do.

AMOS: It's the first recognition by the government of the high price peaceful protesters have paid on the streets of Syria.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.

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