MICHELE NORRIS, host: For six months, protesters in Syria have been calling for the downfall of the Syrian government. This weekend in Damascus, more than 300 dissidents echoed that call. They came together to unify a fractious opposition. The meeting came two days after a similar gathering in Turkey. Both groups say they aim to support the demonstrations. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Beirut.
DEBORAH AMOS: The meeting at a farmhouse outside Damascus was unprecedented. Syria's traditional dissidents, men and women who've spent years in jail, have met before, but for the first time, they sat together with young street organizers of the current unrest. Security police monitored the six-hour meeting but didn't intervene, and there were no arrests. Dr. Samir Aita, an opposition figure living outside Syria, attended the gathering and talked about the significance when he got to Beirut.
Dr. SAMIR AITA: It was important to say in Damascus: Let's topple the regime, not in Paris or in Washington or in Berlin or anywhere else. This was a moment - exciting, thrilling.
AMOS: Participants said no to foreign intervention and no to violence, a signal to blunt the growing sentiment on the street. Some activists say it's time to take up arms against a brutal government crackdown that's cost close to 3,000 lives. The conference also acknowledged Syria's so-called silent majority, says Aita, Syrians in the largest cities who've remained on the sidelines of the protest.
AITA: They tell us, even silently, topple the regime, please. We want to get rid of it. So they need to be hailed, even if they say this not very loudly.
AMOS: This meeting and one two days earlier in Turkey were aimed at knitting together Syria's dissidents, a mixed bag of secularists, leftists and Islamists. Past attempts have ended in failure and frustration for street protesters who want a united opposition to back their movement. But after 40 years of rule by one family and one party, Syrian dissidents have no experience in forming parties or even nongovernment organizations, says analyst Vali Nasr.
VALI NASR: The Assad regime use of pressure tactics and divide-and-conquer strategies has also had an impact.
AMOS: And it may take time to find agreement among these groups, says Nasr.
NASR: Generally, opposition politics is always messy, unless there is a charismatic figure that would rally the opposition together.
AMOS: No leader has emerged from the Syrian uprising, and young activists say that's the way they want it for now. Kareem Lailah, who edits a newspaper that documents the uprising, says the dissidents in Turkey and the insiders in Damascus have to learn to work together first.
KAREEM LAILAH: And let's see how they collaborate. The collaboration is very important. The leadership is not really the main issue now.
AMOS: For demonstrators, the issue is how to maintain momentum. A recent sweep of arrests has targeted organizers as the government raises the price of peaceful protest. Aita, who returned to Damascus for the gathering and met some of the young activists for the first time, urged them to abandon the weekly Friday protests at noon when the security forces are waiting.
AITA: Show your will and show that your will has been bigger and will continue to be bigger. Make smart demonstrations, OK? Save your lives.
AMOS: Friday protests are already smaller than a few months ago. The stream of protest videos has slowed. Organizers who want to topple the regime of President Bashar al-Assad are already adopting new strategies, especially in the capital where security is particularly tight. A few weeks ago, anti-government organizers launched a new tactic: releasing tens of thousands of pong balls across Damascus painted with the slogan: Bashar must go. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.