Syria's vice president has called for a transition to democracy in a country ruled for four decades by an authoritarian family dynasty, crediting mass protests with forcing the regime to consider reforms while also warning against further demonstrations.
Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa spoke at a national meeting that has been opened, with some critics of the government in attendance. However, key opposition figures driving the four-month-old uprising boycotted the talks, saying they refuse to negotiate until a deadly crackdown on protesters ends.
"I hope that we will reach ... transition to a pluralistic democratic state that enjoys equality for all citizens who participate in forming their own shining future," al-Sharaa said at the start of two days of talks in the capital, Damascus.
His comments highlighted the extent to which the uprising has shaken President Bashar Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000. While Assad himself has acknowledged the need for reforms in recent weeks, the high-level call for multi-party democracy was remarkable.
Still, al-Sharaa also made thinly veiled threats against the protesters and suggested some received direction from abroad.
"Arabs will not obtain their goals if they rely on foreigners," al-Sharaa said. "Unauthorised protests that lead to unwanted violence will cause the fall of more civilians and soldiers," he said.
However, Al-Sharaa admitted that the promise of reforms would not have come without the uprising. In a rare acknowledgement of the regime's mistakes, al-Sharaa said demonstrations were triggered by "a great deal of mistakes ... that we swept under our carpets, without thinking deeply about the upcoming days."
The approach reflects the Syrian regime's policy of using both brute force and tentative promises of reform to try to quell the uprising, which was inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Some 1,600 civilians and 350 members of security forces have been killed since demonstrations began, activists have said.
Senior opposition figures and activists driving some protests boycotted the meeting.
"They are blockading (restive) cities, and killing demonstrators, arresting people and torturing people to death," said Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for a loose network of anti-government activists. "That cannot create a good environment for dialogue."