Syria's Opposition Convenes Following Mass Protest

Last weekend, the Syrian government opened what was billed as a national dialogue conference. On Friday, anti-government activists massed huge crowds across the country; reportedly more than 1 million people took to the streets. Host Scott Simon talks with NPR's Deb Amos as leaders of Syria's opposition movement convene in Istanbul again to discuss the possible formation of a shadow government.

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

An important meeting of opposition activists in Syria will not take place today. Yesterday, anti-government activists massed huge crowds across the country. More than a million people they say took to the streets. The biggest show of opposition since the wave of protests began in Syria began four months ago. And the Syrian government responded with gunfire.

Security forces killed dozens of people. The highest death toll was in a suburb of Damascus, where the opposition was planning what was supposed to be a groundbreaking strategy meeting scheduled for today.

NPR's Deborah Amos is following events in Syria from Beirut now, and joins us now. Deborah, thanks for being with us.

DEBORAH AMOS: Good morning.

SIMON: And let's start please with that meeting of opposition activists that was planed for today.

AMOS: Well, here was the plan, Scott. There was to be a simultaneous meeting in Istanbul, Turkey and in Damascus, Syria. There are 400 Syrian opposition figures in Istanbul. The idea was to link them together with the Internet. And the participants in Syria included some of these young organizers of the mass rallies.

That would have been a first to bring them in and make them more public. They would all discuss a roadmap for a democratic transition in Syria. And the plan was to challenge the regime's roadmap that was released earlier this week. Some of the older opposition figures suggested even naming a shadow government, but there was dissent among the young participants and that idea was shelved.

SIMON: So the meeting was canceled because of the violence?

AMOS: That's what the activists say in Damascus. But this cancellation is also a sign of trouble for the opposition. It shows how do you function in Syria's repressive system and how do you shape a coherent movement out of what has been mostly a spontaneous street protest.

The location of the meeting in Damascus was leaked. About 150 people were going to show up at a wedding hall in the Damascus suburbs of Qabun today. On Friday, Qabun had this mass rally, it was more like a party. There were balloons, and songs, and chants until the security forces started shooting. And at least a dozen people died, say activists there.

Now, they think the killing was also a message from the government to stop the meeting today. And I talked to one opposition figure in Damascus this morning, Dr. Walid al-Bunni. He did call into that Istanbul meeting, but he says he's now on the run and he's worried that he will be arrested by the end of the day.

SIMON: Does the Syrian government make any explanation for what their forces did at the mass rallies?

AMOS: Well, the official media paints a very different picture of what happened on Friday. They say the numbers are going down and the government distanced itself from the violence. They say that these are armed gunmen who are killing people.

But for the first time, the protest movement managed to get a live feed from three cities - Hama, Homs and Daraa. These are the hotspots in the country. You could see real-time images on a popular Arabic satellite channel. There was no waiting for the cell phone videos to pop up on YouTube. So Syrians are just going to have to decide for themselves what they believe.

SIMON: So on the one hand you have greater means, technological means, at any rate, for members of the opposition to come together and to get out their message. And of course, on the other hand, you have this continuing violence and suppression. How does all this affect the opposition movement?

AMOS: Well what it shows I think is that a spontaneous protest movement is one thing. But organizing a functioning opposition with a consistent message is going to be a lot harder, especially in Syria where all of this is actually new for the opposition. The government talks about creating a multi-party democracy in the next three months.

But there's no opposition meetings allowed. People can't meet without government sanction. The meeting in Istanbul, these are the Syrian outside opposition. They are there to call for the end of the regime. It's impossible to imagine how the government would allow a meeting in Damascus to call for the same thing, but that is what the street is calling for.

SIMON: NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut. Thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you.

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