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Despite many activists' boycott, Syria's 'national dialogue' extended

From Arwa Damon, CNN
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Is dialogue legitimate in Syria?
  • A state-sponsored conference to discuss reforms in Syria will run into Tuesday
  • A government official says many attendees "truly believe" big reforms are coming
  • An opposition leader says he came to see if Damascus is committed to change
  • But many boycotted, calling the talks a farce given the government's crackdown

Damascus, Syria (CNN) -- Even without input from most opposition leaders, Syria's so-called "national dialogue" conference continues to live on -- with the talks set to continue into Tuesday.

Many activists have boycotted the meeting, calling its stated mission to address calls for reform a farce given their claims that the government behind it has violently targeted hundreds who have openly made such demands since mid-March.

"Just last week, when they were inviting us to this conference ... they detain tens of people, killed tens of people -- despite their invitation for dialogue," said Louay Hussein, who spent years in jail for voicing dissent and opted not to attend.

Yet the Syrian government -- despite reports to the contrary from eyewitnesses and human rights groups -- insists it is not behind the violence since demonstrations erupted nationwide, claiming armed groups are responsible. Instead, some officials have said they hope to institute real reforms.

Syrian government opens dialogue
U.S.-Syrian relations deteriorating

The "national dialogue" at the Sahara Hotel complex in Damascus is part of that effort, one that theoretically takes into account viewpoints not only of President Bashar al-Assad's loyalists, but also those wanting real change.

While there has been some debate, albeit little indication that policy changes discussed are about to be implemented, the state-sponsored conference has also been relatively devoid of tension or controversy. In fact, it was extended to Tuesday, with a noon session followed by closing statements.

"We hope that at the end of this comprehensive meeting to announce the transition of Syria to a pluralistic democratic nation where all citizens are guided by equality and participate in the modeling of the future of their country," Vice President Faruq al-Shara said in opening remarks at the meeting Sunday, which was broadcast live on state television.

Countless reports that scores who had called for change had been arrested, injured or killed did not stop more than 90 people from speaking at the conference. They weighed various reforms promised by the president, ranging from establishing a functional multiparty political system, instituting new election laws, revisiting the constitution, even taking measures to allow for more freedom for members of the media and elsewhere.

The government has hailed the conference as a critical first step toward a new, democratic and peaceful Syria.

"I think, if you talk to these young men and women inside ... many of them told me that this is the first time we truly believe the government intends real and radical reform," said Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to President al-Assad.

But many can't reconcile such statements with the continued bloodshed in the country, not to mention little evidence of major policy changes or openness to dissenting views on the streets or in elections.

Many activists will never be heard from again: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said that about 1,400 civilians and 350 security and military forces have died since the unrest began.

Hussein said he couldn't stomach being in the same room with government authorities, talking change, at the same time that his colleagues chanting for change on the streets are suppressed, in some cases violently.

He says the government has not proven that it is serious about dialogue or political resolution, or that it is taking real steps to ensure the safety of unarmed demonstrators who publicly disagree with the regime's position.

Shaaban said that "there is nothing we want more than to wake up tomorrow morning and find no violence in Syria."

"But this requires everyone to participate, and believe that it's is doable," she said.

Al-Tayyed Tisini, an opposition figure, is not convinced. But he did attend the conference hoping to get the government's answer to one question: "Do you really have a program of reforms, or are you buying time to continue on your path to tyranny?"

He'd welcome it if the government says "yes," that it will change how it does business. But what he really wants is not talk, but action.

"This 'yes' should be translated into reality," Tisini said.

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