Syria intellectuals stage meeting
Critics of Syria's authoritarian regime have held a rare gathering in Damascus, and called for a peaceful transition to democracy and an end to the Assad family's 40-year-old monopoly on power.
Almost 200 opposition figures and intellectuals gathered to produce "a vision about how to end tyranny", said an organiser.
While unprecedented in its size, the public meeting at a Damascus hotel - the first since the uprising against President Bashar Assad's rule began in March - had the government's approval, leading to criticism that the regime was trying to take on a veneer of openness while continuing its bloody crackdown on dissent. Many regime opponents stayed away for that reason.
Still, the dissident gathering, at which the government was unrepresented, would have been unthinkable a few months ago in tightly controlled Syria. It came as the regime was reeling under the pressure of a relentless protest movement, and authorities were clearly anxious to show they were making concessions.
Syria's state-run news agency, meanwhile, reported a national political dialogue planned by Assad would begin on July 10, and "all factions, intellectual personalities, politicians" would be invited.
As Assad had said in a June 20 speech, the agenda will include constitutional amendments, including one to open the way to political parties other than the ruling Baath Party, the agency said.
The dissidents' meeting began with the Syrian national anthem, followed by a minute's silence in honour of the hundreds of Syrians who have been killed in the suppression of protests.
"We are meeting today ... to put forward a vision about how to end tyranny and ensure a peaceful and secure transition to the hoped-for state: the state of freedom, democracy and equality," Louay Hussein, a prominent writer and one of the organisers, said in an opening speech. The current regime should "perish," he added.
Michel Kilo, one of Syria's best-known writers and pro-democracy activists, called on the regime to immediately build trust with the opposition by allowing secular, non-violent opposition parties to exist and by amending an article in the constitution that designates Assad's Baath party as "the leader of the state and society".
The only salvation is through a peaceful political transformation, Syrian scholar Munther Khaddam said at the conference. Otherwise, he said, "the alternative to that is the unknown, and the destruction of (Syrian) society".