Syrian Opposition Leaders Meet in London

Contact with some political groups is illegal in Syria. Officials have cracked down on meetings and arrested several dissidents. But two leaders from different groups are challenging the Syrian government by publicly meeting in London.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

A leading Syrian dissident has challenged the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad by meeting publicly with the Muslim Brotherhood in London. Membership or collaboration with that group is a capital offense in Syria. Both dissidents and Islamists agree that democracy is the way to solve Syria's problems. Here's NPR's Deborah Amos.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

In a cramped living room, political dissidents gathered for a satellite TV broadcast from an Arab news channel from London. The program opened with a quote from the Koran, then the title, "Democracy," written in bold English in Arabic letters. On the screen, two men from opposite sides of the political and religious spectrum sat side by side.

(Soundbite from "Democracy")

Mr. RIAD AL-TAHER: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Riad al-Taher spent 17 years in solitary confinement for membership in Syria's Communist Party. He was intense, rumpled and rambling, but still the most respected member of Syria's political opposition.

(Soundbite from "Democracy")

Mr. AL-TAHER: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Sadr Al-Din Bayanouni leads Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, banned in Syria, exiled in London. In his well-cut Western suit and neat beard, Bayanouni seemed more like a political science professor than the leader of an outlawed Islamist movement. The unusual broadcast was a message that any group, even Islamists who support democracy, are welcomed to challenge the ruling power in Syria, says a member of the domestic opposition.

Mr. KAMAL LABUANI(ph): We need democracy by any way. We need gathering. We need demonstration to invent political life. We need time.

AMOS: Kamal Labuani, who spent three years in prison, admits this new dialogue with the banned Muslim Brotherhood is a risk, but opposition groups are already under threat. In the past few weeks, some opposition members have been jailed. Marwar Kabalan, a professor at Damascus University, says the regime is cracking down.

Professor MARWAR KABALAN (Damascus University): And I feel like they are so much afraid of change.

AMOS: Kabalan says while Syria's president supports political reform, some parts of the regime still will not tolerate dissent.

Prof. KABALAN: It's better for everybody, for Syria, for the government, for the opposition to sit and just talk.

AMOS: But no one is talking to Syria's opposition, not the Syrian regime or the US government. Josh Landis(ph), an American academic living in Damascus, says Syria has been left out of Washington's policy to promote democratic change in the Middle East. The Bush administration's demands are aimed at changing Syria's external behavior. Washington wants an end to the flow of Arab militants into neighboring Iraq and to stop interfering in neighboring Lebanon.

Mr. JOSH LANDIS (American Academic): None of those things concern democracy in Syria and this leaves the opposition here high and dry. They realize they have no ally in America.

AMOS: Landis says it is unlikely Washington will promote democracy in Syria or pressure for internal reform.

Mr. LANDIS: Because once you ask Bashar to treat the democrats here responsibly, then you have to reward him when he does it, and that means dialogue, carrots, not just a stick. It's completely antithetical to the present policy.

AMOS: For Marwar Kabalan, Washington's policy of all sticks and no carrots has undermined hope for Syria's political reformers.

Prof. KABALAN: The Americans are not willing to talk to the Syrian regime. The Syrian regime is not willing to talk to the opposition. And the opposition cannot talk to any one of them. So how are we going to resolve this? It's a very difficult, a very complicated situation.

AMOS: Syrian's Muslim Brotherhood is willing to talk about democracy and reform and Syria's political dissidents are listening.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.

STAMBERG: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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